Science·What on Earth?

How the oilsands cut some emissions by exporting them

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at some of the accounting around oilsands emissions and examine the effect a bee shortage is having on Canadian berry farmers.

Also: Martian conditions in Canada's North

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(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

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This week:

  • How the oilsands cut some emissions by exporting them
  • Martian conditions in Canada's North
  • A bee shortage threatens Quebec's cranberry industry

How the oilsands cut some emissions by exporting them

(Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Canada's big oil companies say they have an ambitious plan that will make oil and gas production net zero by 2050

But so far, oil and gas production emissions have been growing. Emissions from crude oil production increased 67 megatonnes, or 170 per cent, since 1990, according to Canada's latest greenhouse gas emission inventory, submitted to the United Nations in April. 

That's largely because of the increase in emissions-intensive oilsands production in Alberta, which has nearly doubled since 2005. Oilsands emissions alone have increased 66 megatonnes, or 437 per cent, since 1990.

Yet oilsands producers such as Canadian Natural Resources and Cenovus point out that they've drastically reduced the volume of greenhouse gases they generate per barrel of oil in recent years — a measure called emissions intensity.


The report to the UN credits three factors. The first is that oilsands producers have cut the amount of fuel that must be burned to produce a barrel of oil, thanks to technology and efficiency improvements.

The second is that they've reduced the volume of methane emissions vented, flared and leaked during production, thanks to new regulations. That's important, because methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas that leaks during all kinds of fossil fuel production and is considered crucial to limiting warming over the coming decades.

Those are real cuts to the emissions generated when a barrel of oil is produced.

The third factor is that more crude bitumen is being produced without being "upgraded" to synthetic crude oil. When oilsands production began in the 1960s, oil companies built expensive "upgraders" to heat the sludgy bitumen and process it into lighter synthetic crude oil (SCO). That allowed it to meet specifications to be transported by pipeline for export.

New technology and the increase of "in-situ" oilsands extraction using horizontal underground wells instead of open pit mining have made it possible to simply dilute the non-upgraded bitumen to be transported as "dilbit."

Meanwhile, the shale oil boom in the U.S. flooded the market with light sweet crude, similar to SCO, eroding the price difference between that product and dilbit since the 2010s and reducing the incentive to upgrade, according to the Canadian Energy Regulator.

Kevin Birn, vice-president of emissions co-ordination and chief analyst for Canadian oil markets at the market intelligence firm S&P Global, said production of competing heavier sour crudes from Mexico and Venezuela has also declined, creating more room in the market for Canada's dilbit.

Between 2010 and 2020, non-upgraded bitumen production increased more than 130 per cent, while synthetic crude oil production increased just 41 per cent, Canada's report to the UN says. "The additional energy required to process the crude bitumen (and resulting emissions) is therefore transferred downstream, mainly to export markets where the bitumen is processed at petroleum refineries," it adds.

Birn said that compared to SCO, dilbit requires higher temperatures to process in the U.S. after export. So exporting dilbit results in lower oil production emissions in Canada, while increasing processing emissions in the U.S. 

But does it make a difference to the total emissions from production and processing? 

Birn said no. "When you actually compare it on a full lifecycle basis, [dilbit and SCO are] quite similar in terms of their overall profile because you're doing the same sorts of things — you're just doing it in a different place."

Jan Gorski, director of the oil and gas program at the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based think-tank focused on energy, put it this way: "It makes a difference for accounting purposes, but the atmosphere doesn't care whether the emissions were generated in Canada or in the U.S."

Gorski said he commends oil companies for the work they've done since 1990 to reduce their emissions, but they need to do more to meet Canada's — and their own — commitments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. 

"We really have to get on a path to net zero," he said. "The big oilsands companies have already committed to go down that path, and now we need to see them show what their plans are for how they're going to achieve those goals."

– Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Last week's newsletter contained an item on research into the ecological effects of sunscreen use, including potential damage to coral reefs.

Reader Jennifer Knoch responded:

"I wanted to share this from a science communicator who asserts that overwhelming evidence suggests that sunscreen does not cause coral bleaching … Presenting the damage as a done deal in your story by saying 'this has a toxic effect' suggests scientific consensus in favour of it causing harm. 

"I also think your mini-story is missing the most important point, which you'll find at the end of the Guardian article you link to, and which doesn't come up at all in your coverage: 'The three main threats to coral reefs are global warming, overfishing and coastal water pollution.' … People should worry more about the flight to that coral reef than whatever they slather on their body while they're there.

"I'm someone with fair skin and a higher skin cancer risk, and while I seek environmental choices whenever possible and do think small actions can be meaningful, I don't want to risk my health based on incomplete data."

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There's also a radio show and podcast! Forced to live on lands that are ever more prone to flooding from climate change, two First Nations grapple with the fallout. This week, What On Earth explores the historical and environmental injustice and what can be done about it. What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Martian conditions in Canada's North

In a remote Arctic coastal area in the Northwest Territories, the smouldering earth is so hot that it will melt your boots — and there, researchers say they have found a mineral formation that could hold clues to understanding Mars. The Smoking Hills area between Tuktoyaktuk and Paulatuk, N.W.T. — known as Ingniryuat in Inuvialuit communities — is unusual because it is home to a mineral called jarosite, which is plentiful on the Red Planet, but found in only a few places on Earth.

The jarosite formations here are being studied to better understand the environment on Mars and how it evolved, and scientists think the timeline suggests the Red Planet could have been more hospitable to life than previously thought. That's because the shale in Ingniryuat was deposited around 83 million years ago in oceans "teeming with life," similar to a modern ocean environment, said Steve Grasby, a scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada, who recently published research on the formations in the journal Chemical Geology. 

This suggests that even though jarosite is found in presumably acidic places on Mars, the planet may not have always been acidic — allowing more possibility of life. "It could be something that happened millions of years later to form those layers, just like in the Smoking Hills," said Grasby, who is seen in the image below.

The Smoking Hills offer a rare chance for researchers to understand the environment on Mars, said Grasby. "You can't go there [Mars] … The only way to study it is to find a good analogue on Earth."

— Avery Zingel

(Natural Resources Canada)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

A bee shortage threatens Quebec's cranberry industry


Quebec cranberry farmer Luc Decubber has finally found enough honey bees to pollinate his vines this year. But it wasn't a simple feat, and he worries it could become even harder in years to come.

"We're talking with the beekeepers and they say [they] have a lot of deaths during the winter, and especially this year," said Decubber (photo above).

The beekeeper who usually rents to Decubber expects to lose about half his hives this year. Decubber says that without bees, his farm, Canneberges Bécancour, can't survive.

"If there's not an animal … to pollinate [the flowers], we will have no fruit," said Decubber.

His farm, which is in Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, Que., a small town northeast of Montreal, used to rely on native pollinators when it started nearly 30 years ago.

But there aren't enough native pollinators to cover the farm's expanding footprint anymore, so like many fruit producers, Decubber has been forced to rent honey bees to pollinate the small white flowers that eventually turn into cranberries.

Sébastien Laberge, a third-generation beekeeper and honey producer who runs La Miellerie St-Stanislas with his family in Saint-Stanislas-de-Kostka, Que., lost 70 per cent of his bees over the winter. 

That has been devastating for his business, because half of his revenues come from renting out his bees to fruit and vegetable farms for pollination.

"We get calls every day for either blueberry, cranberry. We just don't have any bees right now to contract out," he said.

Many other bee producers in the province and across Canada have found nasty surprises when they opened their hives this spring.

Varroa mites, a parasite that kills the bees, is suspected to be the main culprit behind the bee losses this year. Monoculture — the cultivation of a single crop — also weakens the bees' health, because it provides them with only one nutrient source.

Laberge thinks other reasons may be contributing to their decline: pesticides, fungicides and climate change. "It's a bunch of different environmental problems that probably killed our bees."

Paul Kelly, manager of the University of Guelph's Honey Bee Research Centre, says honey bees are crucial for agriculture in Canada. He said about a third of the food that we eat is pollinated by bees.

"Fruits, seeds, nuts, berries, vegetables — all those kinds of things benefit from bee pollination."

Honey bee losses have gone up since about 2007, according to Kelly. It's a trend that worries Decubber.

He said cranberry farmers will have to find alternative solutions, such as using bumble bees. That is not ideal, because bumble bee hives have significantly fewer bees than honey bee hives, he said.

One long-term solution Decubber is working on is trying to attract natural pollinators back by planting indigenous bushes around the cranberry bogs.

In the short term, Kelly expects fruit and vegetable producers will see a shortage because so many beekeepers lost their bees this year.

Laberge said he was lucky because he was able to secure bees imported from Australia to rebuild his hives. He estimates that in Quebec alone there will be a shortage of about 10,000 hives this year.

"At the end of the day, we're all going to be on the losing end if nothing changes," he said.

Sarah Leavitt and Émilie Warren

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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