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Looking at Keystone XL: How Much Greenhouse Gas?

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Previously: What's in the Pipeline?

Thanks to the extra steps involved in isolating the bitumen, and then reducing its viscosity, oil sands production spews more carbon into the atmosphere than does regular drilling. The question is whether this constitutes a significant amount of carbon. Both environmentalists and the oil and gas industry cite figures that are borne out by a 2010 report by IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, Oil Sands, Greenhouse Gases, and U.S. Oil Supply: Getting the Numbers Right (PDF). But they choose to interpret them differently. For their part, environmentalists look strictly at the levels of carbon emitted in the production of oil. By that measure, tar sands greenhouse gas emissions are 30 percent higher than those from average U.S. domestic oil production. This construct is known as “well to tank.”

The oil and gas industry, by contrast, prefers to use a measure called “well to wheels,” which counts emissions from the actual burning of the oil, e.g., driving your car after you fill it with gas. Those tailpipe emissions are far greater than the emissions that result from extracting petroleum by any particular method, processing it and bringing it to market. Using a well-to-wheels approach, oil sands extraction yields an average increase in greenhouse gas emissions of only six percent. That is, if you drive your car at all, you will emit a great deal of greenhouse gas, regardless of how the oil was extracted.

Next: Could Alberta Happen Here?

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