Pulling Back the Curtain on a Massively Polluting Industry

, Senior scientist | September 14, 2016, 2:26 pm EDT
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The heat trapping emissions responsible for climate change come from many sources, but in the United States none looms larger than transportation, which is poised to overtake electricity generation as America’s biggest climate problem.

Most of these emissions come from cars and trucks: hence the need for fuel efficient and plug-in vehicles.

But there’s a story unfolding behind the pump that no one—at least in the media—is paying attention to. That’s the story of unconventional oil; tar sands, tight oil, and other sources that were previously considered too difficult or expensive to bring to market. It’s also the subject of our new interactive web feature, that tries to shed some light on what the oil industry is up to—and what it means for the climate.

We have to cut the emissions from producing transportation fuels, because the scale of oil production is enormous.  In 2015 the U.S. used 7 billion barrels of petroleum products, and emissions from extracting and refining each of those barrels released around 100 kg CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2e). This adds up to emissions of about 700 million metric tons of CO2e global warming pollution.

Because of inadequate monitoring and reporting, we don’t know exactly how high total emissions from the oil industry are, but to put the scale of the problem in context, 700 million tons is more than the tailpipe CO2 pollution from all the diesel vehicles in the United States in 2015.

Emissions from oil extraction and refining for petroleum products used in the U.S. (in CO2e) compared to CO2 emissions from the use of major transportation fuels in the United States. Source Energy Information Administration and Oil Climate Index.

This is not an apples-to-apples comparison, particularly since the oil extraction emissions include significant emissions from methane, but it serves to illustrate the significance of the pollution under the direct control of the oil industry.

But using average figures for oil industry emissions masks enormous variation. Emissions from extraction and refining a barrel of oil range from less than 50 to more than 250 kg CO2 equivalent (CO2e).  That five-fold difference is a bigger gap than the difference between the most and least polluting gasoline powered cars on the market today. According to fueleconomy.gov, driving a 12 MPG Lamborghini Aventador Roadster will produce 4.5 times as much tailpipe COas a 56 MPG Toyota Prius Eco.

The oil industry has choices to make about which oils they extract and how they manage their operations that can make a major difference in their pollution.

While we all love a good story about Elon Musk’s latest adventures with electric cars, solar panels, or rocket ships, there’s an overlooked opportunity to cut emissions right under our nose. The oil industry can do a lot to cut its own emissions, and as one of the largest polluters, they have a responsibility to act. I hope the press will start paying attention to the pollution from the oil industry, so we can hold them to account.

Posted in: Vehicles

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  • solodoctor

    Thanks for a good summary of this issue. The interactive website is well done. I have signed the petition for the EPA. I hope other UCS members will do likewise and encourage family and friends to do so as well.

    I look forward to supporting UCS’s continuing efforts in this issue in the months to come. It will be an ongoing struggle. I will be there for the long haul.

  • PaulScott58

    The oil companies certainly could do more to reduce their impact, but they have not demonstrated any desire to do so.

    The best way to fix this problem is for people to take advantage of low-cost electric cars and clean renewable energy that costs less than the dirty power. Over 15 great plug-in cars are on the market, and for some of the models, there is a very affordable used car market. Used EVs are a great value with Nissan LEAFs and Chevy Volts selling for well under $10K. They still work like new, too.

    The second generation of EVs is about to hit the market in January with the debut of the Bolt, a 230 mile range EV from GM. Followed in 2017 by the new LEAF and Tesla’s vaunted Model 3, the car that will kill internal combustion for good, the vast majority of Americans who drive cars can afford EVs.

    Our federal and state governments have provided incentives to enable most everyone to go clean electric, but people need to actually do it in greater numbers to have the impact on the environment and economy that we need.