Alberta’s Oil Sands Just Got Dirtier

Media release from the Pembina Institute:
February 13, 2009 – Today the Pembina Institute submitted comments on a draft Alberta Government policy that would allow in situ oil sands operations to burn dirtier fuels, which would significantly increase the intensity and total amount of greenhouse gas pollution and air emissions from the sector. The draft policy, “Emission Standards for the Use of Non-gaseous Fossil Fuels for Steam Generation in In-Situ Bitumen or Heavy Oil Recovery Projects,” was posted on the Alberta Government’s website with no fanfare on December 23, 2008. The public had until today to submit comments.
The policy would allow oil sands companies operating in situ projects to switch from burning natural gas to much dirtier, more carbon intensive fossil fuels such as raw bitumen or the waste from oil sands upgrading (petroleum coke and asphaltenes). Compared to conventional oil production, in situ oil sands production produces four times the greenhouse gas pollution per barrel when burning relatively cleaner natural gas. According to the Pembina Institute’s analysis, in situ oil sands operations burning petroleum coke without any mitigation would produce 66 per cent more greenhouse gas pollution than if the same operation were to burn natural gas.* The Alberta Government document states that the policy may be expanded to include other industrial activities in the future.
“The Alberta government is encouraging a carbon intensive industry to get even dirtier,” says Chris Severson-Baker, Policy Director with the Pembina Institute. “This is very bad news for the global climate and for people living in areas already heavily affected by the air pollution from oil sands operations and areas downwind, including Saskatchewan.”
The draft policy, which was posted for public comment on December 23, 2008, appears to be related to an objective of Alberta’s Energy Strategy to “support the replacement of natural gas as an oil sands input . . . from the bottom of the bitumen barrel.” The policy includes a requirement that in situ plants be designed to be capable of capturing carbon emissions in the future, but Alberta and Canada have no regulations or reduction requirements that would require carbon capture and storage (CCS), nor has CCS been proven for application with in situ oil sands operations.
“While Canada seeks to assure the U.S. that efforts are underway to clean up “dirty oil” from the oil sands, Alberta is unveiling a policy that takes us in exactly the opposite direction,” notes Simon Dyer, Oil Sands Program Director with the Pembina Institute. “It’s ridiculous to suggest that requiring that facilities be carbon capture ready is enough. It’s like having a mousetrap with no cheese — it’s capture-ready but it doesn’t catch the mouse.”
In its written submission to Alberta Environment, the Pembina Institute recommends that Alberta Environment withdraw the policy until such time as regulations are in place that cap and reduce total GHG pollution from the oil sands, and regional air pollution limits are in place to protect human health and the environment.

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