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The oil sands upgrader at Horizon facility near Fort McMurray, Alta.Larry MacDougal/The Globe and Mail

A study that gave researchers unprecedented access to internal company data of three Alberta oil sands operations has shown a decline in greenhouse gas emissions, but the authors warn it cannot – and should not – be used to paint a sweeping picture of the entire sector.

The study, published late November, brought together researchers from the University of Calgary, University of Toronto and Stanford University, who assessed a vast array of open-source and confidential emissions data at Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon project, Imperial Oil Ltd.’s Kearl site and MEG Energy Corp.’s Christina Lake facility. They found that current emissions at the three sites are 14 per cent to 35 per cent lower than reported in previous studies, and that new technologies could further decrease those upstream emissions by 14 per cent to 19 per cent compared with current technology.

Researchers hope the paper can help inform Canadian emissions policy as the country pursues its goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, potentially tying in with the Clean Fuel Standard recently drafted by Ottawa. But they also say data show that Canada must do a lot more to meet that goal.

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The idea behind the study was to find out just how accurately open-source data can estimate emissions for oil sands projects and emerging technologies. The result? Pretty close – within 1 per cent to 4 per cent of actual emissions.

Study costs were split 50-50 between two arms-length provincial agencies in Alberta’s technology sphere – Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) and Alberta Innovates. The two groups were also on an advisory committee alongside Natural Resources Canada and a range of industry experts.

Input from CNRL, Imperial and MEG Energy was key to the research – a relationship the government agencies and academics acknowledge could irk folks who don’t trust oil companies, nor the data they report.

But study co-author Joule Bergerson, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and Canada Research Chair in energy technology assessment, told The Globe it’s “absolutely critical” to work with those companies to get the most accurate data.

“They have insights about the on-the-ground challenges and operating details that you can’t capture in public documents,” she said.

The real risk, she said, is using the research to paint all oil sands facilities with the same brush. The study covered only a tiny sliver of the oil sands, let alone Canada’s entire oil sector.

“Trying to generalize these results and cherry-pick and spin has always been a problem with life cycle emission results, particularly in the transportation fuel area,” Ms. Bergerson said.

“The reality is that every one of these projects is very different.”

The University of Calgary’s Sylvia Sleep, who headed up data comparisons for the study, said alongside the variability across facilities, emissions within individual projects change over time as companies rejig their operations or employ new technologies.

Only upstream emissions (from getting crude out of the ground) were studied for the research, but the paper also included estimates of downstream emissions from users burning fuel.

Those estimates found that even the 35-per-cent emissions reduction in emissions at one facility only translated to about a 2-per-cent reduction in emissions from well-to-wheel – in other words, from when the crude leaves the ground to when it’s burned as fuel.

That means there’s a lot more work to do beyond just making changes that capture emissions in oil production, said study co-author Heather MacLean, a professor at the University of Toronto. Industry and all relevant jurisdictions must also rethink fuel combustion as a whole.

“No matter what we do in the upstream, if we’re still combusting in a vehicle, we’re still not making it to net-zero,” she said.

While the study covered just three facilities, the plan for the next two phases is to extend research to refineries and all Alberta projects that produce 30,000 barrels or more a day.

“At the end of the day, we will have a pretty clear idea which facilities are performing well, which facilities are best, which are laggards,” said John Zhou, Clean Resources vice-president at Alberta Innovates.

“As there is more pressure for certain industries [to reduce emissions], hopefully we will provide some incentive for continuous improvement.”

For ERA – which awards funding for remissions-reduction projects in Alberta with cash from the province’s carbon tax on large emitters – the study will also help paint a clearer picture of which technologies work and where it’s best to direct money. That’s because the data reflect actual emissions, said chief executive Steve MacDonald, rather than relying on averages, as other studies have.

“Better information allows you to make better decisions,” he told The Globe.

“We’re in the investment game, and the more we can understand where the baselines are – where the opportunities are – with credible third-party-validated evidence, the better our portfolio could be directed.”

And while Mr. MacDonald acknowledged the data still aren’t perfect, he said “it’s credible, new information” that he hopes influences government emissions-reduction policy.

Neither the federal nor Alberta government are pondering changes to the oil sector’s greenhouse gas emissions reporting requirements, but Natural Resources Canada told The Globe in an e-mail that the methodology and results of the study “will be of interest in ongoing dialogues related to national and international work to quantify emissions.”

“The study also shows the potential emission reductions that industry can achieve through new technological innovations and help show the international community that Canada’s oil and gas sector is serious about reducing emissions and is working with us to help achieve our climate change targets,” it said.

Even so, Mr. MacDonald stressed the study “was not meant to be a public relations effort” for the oil sector. But, he added, allowing credible third parties access to internal data for rigorous analysis could help respond to some of the public concerns around the cleanliness of oil.

Whether that will stem the flow of international money managers and investors fleeing Alberta’s oil sands remains to be seen, but Ms. Bergerson said making previously confidential data into the public sphere could help boost credibility.

“Achieving net-zero is one thing, but convincing stakeholders that you have actually achieved net-zero is really important,” she said.

“So I think this is really important to be able to continue developing tools like this to be able to show that transparently.”

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