We consume all kinds of junk these days: junk food, junk television and even junk news (unless you really believe that supermarket tabloid about Bat Boy lurking out there in the night).
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The rationale for the junk tag is based on a couple things. First, bitumen production has a return on energy input that’s about two-thirds lower than production of conventional, lighter forms of oil. Second, the energy needed to recover bitumen in situ comes from burning other fossil fuels, such as natural gas, making bitumen production more carbon intensive than conventional oil recovery.
So, is bitumen really junk energy? We certainly don’t think so.
Biases aside, the reality is this: bitumen represents a viable energy source in a world which needs all the energy it can get -- and then some. World energy demand is growing, driven especially by developing nations looking to increase the standard of living for their populations. By 2035, the International Energy Agency expects total energy demand to increase by more than a third.
There’s no question that crudes derived from bitumen are more carbon intensive than other crudes derived from other oils, but not significantly. A study by Jacobs Consultancy, for example, showed that bitumen-based crudes are only slightly higher on a well-to-wheels basis. The study also found that bitumen is actually less carbon intensive than some conventional crudes. As we’ve noted before, most greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with crudes happen when we combust hydrocarbon fuels in our trucks and cars rather than during production.
Just as fast food chains have made their menus healthier in recent years, the oil sands industry has steadily improved its GHG emission performance.
Suncor, for example, has reduced its carbon intensity per barrel by over 50 per cent since 1990, and according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, industry has reduced carbon intensity by more than 26 per cent per barrel since 1990.
Efforts are underway to achieve further gains in the years ahead. Canada’s Oil Sands Innovation Alliance has made GHG emissions one of its main focus areas. And the first oil sands carbon capture and storage project is under construction at Shell’s Quest facility. When completed, Shell expects the facility will trim more than one million tonnes of CO2 from its oil sands operations a year.
So we maintain bitumen is not junk energy. Unlike scoffing potato chips, watching Real Housewives or skimming the National Enquirer, developing bitumen to meet the world’s energy needs is much more than a guilty pleasure.