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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Will Canada’s Oil Sands Survive The Green Revolution?

Canada’s climate is heating up at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the world. In order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, experts have determined that it’s imperative to keep our world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial averages, and preferably no more than 1.5 degrees. In northern Canada, annual average temperatures have already increased by approximately 2.3 degrees Celsius. And it’s not just the Canadian arctic that is heating up alarmingly, dangerously fast -- the entire country of Canada has already surpassed the 1.5 degree threshold, having warmed an average of 1.7 Celsius (the equivalent of 3 degrees Fahrenheit). While the entire world is vulnerable to the devastating impacts of climate change, few nations are as urgently under threat as Canada. The country's response to this common enemy, however, has been far from united. In fact, the warming statistics cited in the first paragraph came from a government report that was released in conjunction with carbon taxes to be imposed on four of the nation’s 10 provinces for failing to take action into their own hands and make a plan to curb emissions and combat global warming. 

A big part of Canada’s division over the topic of climate change comes from the fact that a large portion of the country’s economy remains reliant on Alberta’s oil sands, which are not only contributing to the worldwide fossil fuels market, which must be curbed in order to meet with the Paris climate agreement but which further comprise one of the dirtiest oil-producing regions in the world. “Canadian oil industry’s carbon emissions are among the world’s highest for every barrel of oil it pumps,” Reuters reported this week. A typical barrel of oil derived from the thick crude bitumen that naturally occurs in the Albertan oil sands (an energy-intensive process) emits three to five times more greenhouse gas emissions than the global average. 

While the Canadian oil sands are rather extreme in their exceptionally high emissions and exceptionally climate-threatened locality, they are indicative of a much larger problem -- we know we need to kick our dependence on oil, but we’re just not there yet. “The Canadian oil patch exemplifies the most vexing problem of the energy transition,” Reuters writes. “In the long term, Canada needs to cut its dependence on the energy sector that accounts for 10% of its economy, as the world moves away from planet-warming fossil fuels. In the short term, Canada needs to clean up the process of extracting oil to comply with national emissions targets.”

Indeed, the emissions targets that have been set by the Canadian federal government are ambitious. Back in April, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set a nationwide target to slash his country's emissions from 40% to 45% from 2005 levels in less than 10 years. It’s hard to see how Canada will achieve this turnaround by 2030, however, when only one of the nation’s five biggest oil companies has charted a plan for cutting their emissions to meet these newest climate goals. 

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That company is Suncor Energy Inc., and they say that their plan will not be possible without hefty government subsidies.  "To decarbonize significantly takes capital - massive quantities of capital over many years" Cenovus Energy Chief Executive Officer Alex Pourbaix told Reuters. Cenovus is part of a Canadian oil company alliance that has agreed to get themselves on track to meet Canada’s concurrent climate commitment of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but which will fall short of meeting the new threshold Trudeau has set for 2030. 

Indeed, while Trudeau continues to set rhetorically lofty goals, garnering international headlines that place Canada at the forefront of the climate movement, his own government calculates that the oil sands are only going to get dirtier. The oil sands are pumping out more of their heavy-emissions oil than ever before, and are projected to hit a record-breaking peak of 95 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030, the same year that Trudeau has targeted for his emissions cuts in an ironically telling twist. 

That being said, the oil sands have managed to significantly bring down their emissions per barrel, shaving off 21% between 2009 and 2019, but as the amount of oil output increases, so too does the region’s overall carbon footprint. As long as this trend continues, Trudeau’s commitments will likely probe to be empty promises.

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Andrew Z on June 23 2021 said:
    Survive it? What are we expecting will happen, prematurely shuttering production sites that Alberta spent decades and many tens of billions of dollars building out? Who will supply the heavy oil the world demands, Venezuela with their extremely high societal and environmental standards?

    Eliminate the demand for heavy crude and the Alberta oil sands will be eliminated as well, but that won't be happening for many more decades. Until that time, the Alberta oil sands aren't going anywhere and the companies who operate here are cash flow machines at remarkably low commodity prices.

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