Bet on growth in the oil sands, IEA says

Bitumen-belt emissions may be higher, but the world needs 'unconventional' fuel

January 01, 2011

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Oil sands production will grow even if global climate change treaty negotiations achieve their ideal of deep cuts in forecast greenhouse gas emissions, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts.

As a politically neutral research arm of the 28-country Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the IEA says the energy future is far from settled. In its latest annual World Energy Outlook, a 738-page document released in late 2010, the Paris-based agency considers three scenarios that range from zero change to a thorough makeover.

In a “current policies” script, the fossil fuel status quo prevails. In “new policies,” the world’s governments keep limited promises that they have made so far in climate change summit talks but not yet enacted. In a “450 scenario,” the IEA assesses the effects if the United Nations negotiations score a triumph by achieving their elusive goal of a mandatory, enforceable 2°C cap on the forecast rise in global average temperature. The title of the greenest outcome refers to the theoretical maximum number of parts per million in the atmosphere that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels can be allowed to reach without breaking through the heating ceiling.

Under current policies, IEA forecasts that oil sands production will double to 2.8 million barrels a day by 2020 and more than triple to 4.6 million barrels daily as of 2035. If the new policies promises made to date come true, the Alberta total still doubles over the next 10 years and only drops slightly to 4.2 million barrels a day in 2035. Even in the 450 scenario, oil sands output climbs to 2.5 million barrels per day in 2020 and 3.3 million barrels daily in 2035. Consumer need for fossil fuels, led by developing nations, drives the expected growth in all three cases.

The IEA rejects the noisy campaign to brand Alberta bitumen as undesirable “dirty oil” and stop supply development. “The production of unconventional oil generally emits more greenhouse gases per barrel than most types of conventional oil. However, on a well-to-wheels basis the difference is much less, since most emissions occur at the point of use. In the case of Canadian oil sands, carbon dioxide emissions are between five per cent and 15 per cent higher,” the agency says.

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