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New Oil Sands Pipeline Plan Would Dramatically Increase Carbon Emissions

The Vancouver Sun reports that Kinder Morgan, operator of the Trans Mountain pipeline that transports oil from Alberta to the Port of Vancouver, hopes to increase the capacity of the proposed pipeline “twinning” project. Here, I’ve updated previous estimates of embedded carbon emissions in proposed pipeline to the British Columbia (BC) coast.

The annual flow of carbon through the proposed twinning project and the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway project (presuming full operation) would dwarf greenhouse gas emissions from British Columbia, an issue presented here in the past. Carbon emissions embedded in the Northern Gateway project alone would be greater than current BC emissions, and close to twice the 2020 goal. With the proposed increase in capacity of the Kinder Morgan twinning project (shaded green), emissions embedded oil exports from the proposed pipelines would be more than twice the current emissions from within the province itself. Total oil exports from the BC coast would be equivalent to over 3.6 times the provincial emissions target for the year 2020.

As we also discussed before, the pipeline expansion would completely undermine not just B.C.’s emissions reduction policy, but the entire country’s emissions reduction policy.

The second graph shows the estimated gap (i.e. necessary reductions) between the most recent national emissions estimate (2010, 692 Mt) and the policy goal for 2020 (17% reduction, ~607 Mt). The emissions embedded in the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline (82.5 Mt) is alone almost as great as the Canadian 2020 emissions gap (85.3 Mt). Add in the original Kinder Morgan proposal, the recent proposed bump in capacity, and the emissions embedded in oil exports of the pipeline would be 1.6 times the national emissions gap.

Ay, here’s the rub. Carbon exports are not included in a country’s emissions budget. The very reasonable international greenhouse gas accounting system allocates emissions to the country where the carbon, not the country where the carbon is extracted from the ground. From a pure accounting standpoint, BC and Canada’s carbon emissions would be affected by the construction and operation of the pipelines, but not the amount of oil or bitumen flowing through pipes to tankers on the coast.

The point here is about the greater challenge. The climate does not care where the carbon is burned. Should Canada bear some responsibility for the climate implications of extracting and transporting the carbon? Are we hypocrites to promote local emissions policies and controls while dramatically increasing exports of carbon to the rest of the world?

Simon Donner's picture

Thank Simon for the Post!

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Jessee McBroom's picture
Jessee McBroom on Jan 13, 2013 4:32 pm GMT

Thanks for the Post Simon. This typr of innaccurate carbon assesment is what plagues the climate change modelling attempts. For an accurate Climate Change Model to be develioped it is essential that only full and complete data of extreme integrity be entered into the model. The variables natue herself enters as changes are significant enough to keep the modelling in need of constant correction and update as these variable and fluctuations associated with them manifest themselves.

Bill Woods's picture
Bill Woods on Jan 14, 2013 6:27 pm GMT

So would you argue that US emissions from burning imported oil be reattributed to Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, the Mid-East countries, etc.? That would cut US emissions substantially (~8 million bbl/day).

Simon Donner's picture
Simon Donner on Jan 14, 2013 11:36 pm GMT


I don't have an issue with the international accounting system. It is like democracy, the best worst option. As I said in the post, the point here is about the greater challenge. The Canadian government speaks of working on emissions reductions and promotes the slowing of emissons growth, despite planning to dramatically increase carbon exports. Technically, following the accounting rules, the exports do not go on our books. But if the goal of reducing carbon emissions in country is concern about climate change, increasing exports could undo the benefits or reducing emissions at home. So perhaps we should take both in-country emissions and exports into account when formulating policy.



Ronald Weedbaum's picture
Ronald Weedbaum on Jan 17, 2013 7:33 pm GMT

It seems to me that the emissions should be attributed to the place where the carbon is burned and sent to the atmosphere. not where it is produced.

Other questions that come from your post is "what would the emissions be if the pipeline is not built?" "Will the oil stay in the ground? or will it simply be sent by rail or trucks with a higher associated footprint?"

Fighting against the XL pipeline is, in reality, fighting for higher emissions. Because the oil will be brought to market one way or another.Pipelines have a relatively low footprint when compared to rail and especially to trucking.  If it is sent to China it will have a higher total footprint than it would if it were sent to the Gulf Coast (no shipping required and better regs in the US).




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