Pulling Back the Curtain on a Massively Polluting Industry

September 14, 2016 | 2:26 pm
Jeremy Martin
Senior Scientist and Director of Fuels Policy

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: Transportation

About the author

More from Jeremy

Jeremy Martin evaluates the impact of biofuels and fuel policy. Dr. Martin is the author of more than 15 technical publications and 13 patents on topics ranging from biofuels lifecycle accounting to semiconductor manufacturing and polymer physics.