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The Toronto Star

Greenhouse Emissions From Oil Sands Underestimated: Report

Petti Fong

Greenpeace activists place a banner and block a tar sands mining operation at the Shell Albian Sands outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta September 15, 2009. (REUTERS/Colin O'Connor/Greenpeace/Handout)

VANCOUVER - Alberta's oil sands are emitting more greenhouse gas emissions than previously known by not calculating the impact of using forest and peatlands for production, according to a new report commissioned partly by Greenpeace.

The research conducted by Global Forest Watch found that industry and the government are underestimating how much greenhouse gas emissions are coming from oil sand production by nearly a quarter. Official estimates don't account for carbon released as forest cover is cut and peatlands disturbed, the report says.

Peter Lee, the author of the report, which was funded by three non-profits including Greenpeace, said peatlands, as thick as five metres in some areas and a source of major carbon storage, are a critically important component in the ecosystem as are the boreal forests.

The industry says oil sand facilities release about 36 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent every year.

In more than four decades of oil production starting from 1964, nearly 685 square kilometres of boreal forest has been surface-mined, and 30 per cent of that is pure peatland, according to the report.

"We had aerial shots and measured what the original natural ecosystem looked like and then looked at satellite images to measure the existing disturbances and from that we could subtract how much peatlands have been destroyed," Lee said Friday.

Over the next few decades, Lee said up to 5,000 square kilometres of boreal forest is forecast to be transformed into oil production. That indirect impact has not been accounted for by either industry or the government, said Lee.

Syncrude Canada Ltd., one of the largest producers in Alberta, began reclamation efforts of forests and peatland five years after starting production in 1978, said spokeswoman Cheryl Robb.

Robb said Syncrude has reclaimed 25 per cent of the land the company has "disturbed" for a total of more than 4,600 hectares.

Don Thompson, president of the industry association Oil Sands Developer Group based in Fort McMurray, said both direct and indirect emissions are accounted for by producers.

"Yes, oil sands do clear forests but then they reclaim it again," said Thompson. "Peat and soil are not destroyed. They are saved and reused for reclamation."

Christy Ferguson, Greenpeace's climate and energy coordinator, said Friday governments and companies are working hard to downplay the environmental impact of tar sands operations.

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