Alliance Outlines Three-Phase Plan To Achieve Goal of Net Zero Emissions

The Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative is an alliance between Canada’s five largest oil sands producers. The group has announced additional details of its plan to achieve the goal of net zero greenhouse-gas emissions from oil sands operations.

Oilsands Refinery
A large oil refinery sits along the Athabasca River in Alberta's oil sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta.
Source: Dan Prat/Getty Images

The Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero initiative, an alliance between Canada’s five largest oil sands producers, has announced additional details of its plan to achieve the goal of net zero greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from oil sands operations.

“As a significant source of Canada’s GHG emissions, we know we must also be part of the solution,” said Pathways director Al Reid. "That’s why we’re working together on innovative approaches to achieve our shared vision of net zero emissions.”

Pathways alliance members, who operate facilities accounting for 90% of Canadian oil sands output, are working collectively with the federal and Alberta governments, with a goal to achieve net zero emissions from oil sands operations by 2050 to help Canada meet its climate goals, including its Paris Agreement commitments and 2050 net zero aspirations.

The Pathways alliance already has begun work to eliminate 68 Mt of annual oil sands production emissions in the following three phases:

  • Phase 1 (2021–2030): 22 Mt
  • Phase 2 (2031–2040): 25 Mt
  • Phase 3 (2041–2050): 21 Mt

(The emissions reductions for each phase are estimates based on current assumptions and may be subject to adjustment.)
Because there is no single solution to achieving net zero emissions from oil sands operations, the initiative will use several parallel pathways and technologies. These include established and proven technologies such as carbon capture, use, and storage as well as other existing and emerging GHG-reduction technologies. This includes switching to lower-carbon fuels such as clean hydrogen and electricity to power oil sands operations, implementing advanced production processes, and improving energy efficiency at oil sands facilities.

The Pathways initiative also will work to accelerate the development of potential emerging emissions-reducing technologies such as direct air capture of carbon dioxide (CO2), more-efficient next-generation oil sands production technologies, and small modular nuclear reactors. The initiative will help preserve jobs in the oil sands sector, which is one of Canada’s largest employers, while also creating thousands of new construction and permanent jobs in the oil and gas and clean technology industries.

In Phase 1 (2021–2030), the Pathways initiative will focus on building out a carbon-capture network in the oil sands producing region of northern Alberta. This includes plans to install equipment at several oil sands plants to capture CO2 to keep these emissions from entering the atmosphere. At the heart of the network is a proposed carbon transportation line to gather CO2 from more than 20 oil sands facilities and move it to a proposed hub in the Cold Lake area of Alberta for storage. The line would also be available to other industries in the region interested in capturing and storing CO2.

“Carbon capture may be unfamiliar to many Canadians, but it’s a technology that has been in use for decades around the world that’s proven to be effective and safe,” Reid said. “Canada is a leader in this area, and this technology is already being used in Alberta and Saskatchewan to capture and safely store CO2 from industrial facilities.”

The proposed Pathways carbon-capture network is similar to other large carbon-capture projects already underway in other progressive oil producing nations where industry and government are working together to reduce CO2 emissions from industry.

In Norway, oil companies Equinor, Shell, and Total are collaborating with the government on the development of the Northern Lights project to capture 0.8 Mt per year of CO2 from cement and waste-to-energy plants near Oslo and transport it to a sequestration hub for safe underground storage. To get the project off the ground, the Norwegian government is funding two-thirds of the capital costs for the project and the first 10 years of operating costs.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch government is providing up to $3 billion for the Porthos project, which is being developed by the Port of Rotterdam and state-owned natural gas companies EBN and Gasunie to capture CO2 emissions from refineries and hydrogen plants near Rotterdam and transport it to a safe storage site.

To advance the Pathways vision and help Canada meet its climate goals, alliance members are currently developing detailed project plans for Phase 1, including conducting feasibility studies for the CO2 transportation line and storage hub as well as pre-engineering work for capturing carbon at multiple oil sands facilities.