Alberta oilsands plants have slowed the growth rate of their carbon emissions by becoming more efficient in their role as Canada’s top natural gas user, according to IHS Markit. 

An updated production survey released Wednesday showed a 20% reduction of average oilsands greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since 2009 on a scale known as “intensity.”

Instead of total volume, the yardstick measures emissions caused per barrel of output by burning gas in heat processes used for oilsands production, especially to make steam for underground bitumen extraction.

IHS said its new oilsands carbon emissions survey confirmed a trend foreshadowed by 2018 research that projected a 16-23% decline as of 2030, down to a level 30% below the 2009 intensity peak.

The consultancy cautioned that the intensity yardstick does not necessarily translate into projections of total oilsands GHG emissions. The efficiency of gas-burning production operations remains highly uneven, IHS Markit said.

Carbon emissions from the northern Alberta plants continue to vary across a wide range from 40-201 kilogram/bbl of oil production. Counts of total annual emissions range from 64-70 million tons, depending on output at the time calculations are done.

GHG emissions stand out as one of the most studied oilsands environmental issues, especially since the Canadian and Alberta governments in 2015 set a policy cap of 100 million tons/year on the industry.

A 2019 survey by the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) also showed efficiency gains but added that rising production still spelled growth of total carbon emissions. CERI estimated the industry would nudge its environmental policy growth cap by 2039.

Like the latest IHS Markit production forecast released in July, the CERI reference case rated as most likely to occur projected oilsands output growth of about 30% into a range of 4 million b/d as of 2030.

CERI researchers, like IHS Markit, made no attempt to estimate eventual carbon emission reductions liable to result eventually from substitutes for gas-fired steam extraction processes such as solvents and underground microwave heating. However, it added a warning to keep working on efficiency with gas. 

The industry was reminded that at last count, “total Canadian emissions of carbon dioxide-equivalent were 732 million tons/year or 1.6% of global emissions. Of these emissions, 9.3% came from the oilsands sector.”

In the GHG inventory, the oilsands stand out as an environmental restriction target. “The effects of the sector on Canada’s total emissions and the ability to meet international commitments to greenhouse gas abatement are substantial,” said CERI.

As of mid-2019, new Canadian federal environmental assessment regulations hold new pipeline construction projects accountable for “upstream” carbon emissions by oil and gas production to fill them.