New report shows oilsands companies need to get on track to meet climate goals

A cap on GHG emissions is essential to motivating producers to stay the course to net zero by using available technology

March 1, 2022
Media Release
Emissions from oilsands plant in Fort McMurray, Alberta

Oilsands plant in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Photo: Kris Krüg, Flickr

CALGARY — A new report from the Pembina Institute, Getting on Track: A primer on challenges to reducing carbon emissions from Canada’s oilsands, calls on Canada’s oilsands producers to put forward a plan that will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to a level that aligns with Canada’s commitment to lower emissions by 40 to 45 per cent by 2030. A reduction of this size is, at a minimum, required to put Canada on track to achieve the target of net-zero emissions by 2050 that the world has agreed is necessary to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In this report, the Alberta-based Pembina Institute looks at the challenges facing oilsands producers to decarbonize while remaining competitive in global markets that are moving away from energy systems dominated by fossil fuels. Notwithstanding current volatility in energy markets, if the world achieves net-zero emissions by 2050, the International Energy Agency (IEA) models oil demand dropping to 24 million barrels per day in 2050, down from 98 million barrels per day in 2019. Even in a scenario in which the world fails to achieve net zero by 2050, demand for crude is expected to decline in key markets such as Canada, the United States and Europe, where the use of electric vehicles and other zero-emission means of transportation is growing rapidly. 

The oil and gas industry has been the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. Between 2005 and 2019, emissions from the oilsands soared by 137 per cent  as production increases outpaced reductions in per-barrel emissions intensity. Responding to pressure from investors, stakeholders, and government, companies representing approximately 95 per cent of Canada’s oilsands producers have embraced a commitment to net-zero in a joint initiative called the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero (June 2021). While a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050 is welcome, the Pembina Institute says that credible follow up on this promise will require participating companies to deliver a more detailed plan that is in line with Canada’s 2030 climate goal.

The report suggests that the federal government’s announced intention to establish a cap on oil and gas emissions will help drive oilsands companies to take advantage of opportunities that currently exist in the oil and gas sector as a whole to substantially lower carbon emissions between now and 2030. Depending on how it is implemented, an emissions cap has the potential to provide producers with different options to comply with the new regulation in ways that can accelerate reductions. 

As a major employer, exporter and source of government revenue, the oilsands industry’s performance on national and global decarbonization goals has significant ramifications that extend far beyond Alberta to every corner of the country. In a post-2030 world, where competition between producers to deliver the lowest-cost and lowest-carbon barrel of oil will intensify, the report finds that meeting the net-zero target will be highly challenging for Canada’s oilsands producers. However, given the available technologies for GHG reduction that have already proven to be viable at a commercial scale, it also raises the possibility that Canada’s oil and gas sector – with the oilsands as a substantial subsector – is better positioned than other parts of the economy to meet or exceed Canada’s 2030 emissions reduction targets.


“To meet 2030 climate goal commitments, oilsands companies need to put forward a detailed plan that spells out how and when carbon emissions will decline in line with Canada’s climate goals. An oil and gas sector cap that compels the industry to meet their target would help put the entire sector on a pathway aligned with Canada’s 2030 target.

“Currently, the net-zero commitment that has been made by oilsands companies assumes that substantial progress on emissions reduction will not occur for another decade or more. This does not represent a realistic plan for the sector to lower its emissions to net zero by 2050. However, acting on significant emission reduction opportunities that already exist in the broader Canadian oil and gas sector could slash emissions by the early 2030s. After that, reduced demand for oil combined with a significantly higher charge on pollution will cause production declines to become a major driver of emission reductions.”
— Chris Severson-Baker, Regional Director, Pembina Institute 

Quick facts

  • The oil and gas sector accounted for 26 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.
  • The federal government has committed Canada to reducing emissions 40 to 45 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels and pledges that the country will reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • The companies responsible for 95 per cent of oilsands production last year released the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero, which lays out a number of operational changes and technologies that they claim could enable the sector to lower absolute GHG emissions by 68 Mt CO2e by 2050 from 2018 levels.
  • The International Energy Agency, in its 2021 report The World’s Roadmap to Net Zero by 2050, concluded that achieving a net-zero goal would require a drop in global oil demand to 24 million barrels per day from 98 million barrels per day in 2019.
  • Reducing oil demand and production is key to achieving a net-zero global energy sector by 2050 which would give the world a 50-50 chance of limiting the increase in average temperature to 1.5 degrees C, thereby averting the worst impacts of the climate crisis.


Download a copy of Getting on Track: A primer on challenges to reducing carbon emissions from Canada’s oilsands.


Victoria Foote
Senior Manager, Strategic Communications, Pembina Institute


Report: The Oilsands in a Carbon-Constrained Canada: The collision course between overall emissions and national climate commitments
Blog: Emissions improvements at some facilities are encouraging but not reflective of oilsands overall


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