New Study Concludes Substantial Quantities of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Land-Use Change in the Boreal Forests for Oil Sands Production Are Unreported

A new study released by Global Forest Watch Canada finds that significant amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted through the disturbance and/or removal of biocarbon (trees, shrubs, peats), which overlay Alberta’s oil sands. These land-use change emissions have not previously been measured nor reported by governments and industry. The resulting analyses, maps and report give further insights into the growing impacts of oil sands development on Alberta’s and Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The total area of natural ecosystems that are planned to be removed by oil sands extraction is 1,613,887 ha (20 times the size of the City of Calgary). These areas store 579 megatonnes (million tones) of biological carbon, mostly in peatlands. When the carbon in soils, peat and trees breaks down, it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide (CO2). As a result, 873 megatonnes of CO2 may be emitted into the atmosphere over the next 100 years under the scenario of full oil sands development. The resulting annual average emissions of 8.7 megatonnes of CO2 will substantially raise the normally-reported emissions from the oils sands industry activities.

We wanted to know what volumes of greenhouse gases will be emitted by the oil sands industries from existing and planned levels of development within boreal forest ecosystems. What we found is an astonishing volume of present and projected future greenhouse emissions due to the conversion of biocarbon to carbon dioxide and methane.

—Peter Lee, lead author of the report and Executive Director of Global Forest Watch Canada

Findings of the paper include:

  • As of June 1, 2009, 68,574 ha of boreal forest and peatlands had been cleared for oil sands surface mining. This forest and peatland area contained the equivalent of 77 megatonnes of CO2;

  • Peatlands have been naturally sequestering carbon for millennia. Full development of the oil sands area would result in the loss of 438,659 ha of peatlands and a potential release from these peatland areas of 657 megatonnes of CO2.

  • The natural ecosystems that have undergone or may undergo land use change into open pit mines, tailings ponds, mine waste, overburden piles and associated facility plants, and other major infrastructure resulting from existing and potential surface mining activities total 488,968 ha (including 209,614 ha of peatlands and mineral wetlands and 205,590 ha of upland forest). The above and below

    ground biological carbon content of this area is at least 140.7 megatonnes.

  • The natural ecosystems that have undergone or may undergo land use change into central facilities, exploration wells, production wells, access roads, pipelines and other infrastructure from existing and potential in situ operations total 1,124,919 ha. This area contains at least 438.2 megatonnes of above and below ground biological carbon.

  • Although not all of the biological carbon contained within ecosystems changed by bitumen industrial activities will be emitted into the atmosphere, if all of this carbon (578.9 megatonnes) were emitted, this would amount to 2,121.3 megatonnes of CO2. While this scenario is unrealistic, the authors note, it nevertheless highlights the significance of potential greenhouse gas emissions from the

    release of biological carbon stores from those natural ecosystems that will be changed by a full development scenario of the bituminous sands.

    The likely estimate of releases under a full development scenario would be 238.3 megatonnes of carbon,

    873.4 megatonnes of CO2, or 41.1% of the total carbon contained in the area disturbed by bitumen industrial operations. Over 100 years, this would average out to 8.7 megatonnes CO2 per year, with great variability year-to-year and decade-to-decade.

  • Although reclamation will sequester carbon from the atmosphere, it is unlikely to replace most of the lost biocarbon for thousands of years. Canada’s total emissions for 2007 were 747 megatonnes CO2eq from all sources and Canada’s Kyoto target is 558.4 megatonnes. The bituminous sands industry reported emissions of 28.5 megatonnes of CO2eq in 2004, 35.8 megatonnes of CO2eq in 2007, and have been projected to be 113.1-141.6 megatonnes CO2eq in 2020.

We undertook this research to help better inform the recent efforts of the Government of Alberta to try to balance bitumen extraction with environmental concerns. As part of these initiatives, it is important to know the full carbon emission impact of all activities associated with oil sands development, not just those related to industrial processing.

Our research also builds on the reports commissioned by the Alberta Government’s Energy Research Institute. One of those reports concluded that assessing and including greenhouse gas emissions that may arise from land use was beyond the scope of their work. We hope our Bitumen and Biocarbon analysis will motivate others to include the destruction of natural boreal ecosystems, and the consequent loss of stored biological carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, into more complete life cycle assessments of the impacts of bitumen industrial activities.

—Peter Lee

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