Blogs are opinion pieces and reflect their author’s views

Why don’t environmentalists protest auto plants?


The approval of Keystone XL by Nebraska Governor Dave Heinemen has caused a lot of media excitement, as did the State Department’s latest environmental assessment. A consequence of “positive” developments in the approval saga is renewed opposition to the pipeline, such as the editorial in the New York Times arguing President Obama should say no. One of the reasons for opposition to pipelines from Alberta is concern over the environmental impacts of the oil sands, such as GHG emissions from development.

The Pembina Institute recently published a backgrounder with a back-of-the-envelope estimate of Keystone’s GHG contribution, arguing that because existing pipelines are essentially at capacity, “any additional pipeline capacity from Alberta will directly enable additional oilsands growth.” This ignores the ability to transport bitumen or upgraded bitumen by rail or truck, but that is beside the point. The Pembina study argues Keystone XL will cause a 36 per cent increase from current oil sands production, and the associated emissions are 22.4 mega tonnes, equal to 6.3 coal-fired plants or over 4.6 million cars. While I may want to quibble with their assumptions, that isn’t the point of this post.

Why is Keystone being built? Why is any pipeline proposed? It’s because we have oil here, and they don’t have oil there. Or if they do have oil, they don’t have enough. Pipelines are built because there is demand for oil somewhere else, and we need some way to transport it. Why is there demand for oil? Well, refineries need it to create gasoline, and plastics, and other things that make our lives comfortable. It is consumer demand for gasoline and cars that is driving most of this. Yes, I oversimplify, but my argument isn’t wrong.

Environment Canada breaks down Canadian emissions. I am using their numbers below. In 2010, the oil and gas sector produced 154 mega tonnes (Mt) of CO2e, while the transportation sector produced 166 Mt (96 Mt from passenger transportation, 88 Mt of which is personal transportation). Breaking out the oil sands, its contribution in 2012 was 48 Mt. It’s pretty interesting that the GHG footprint of only passenger transportation is twice that of the oil sands.




















Oil & Gas




Oil Sands




Conventional Oil




NG Production & Processing




Oil & NG Transmission




Downstream Oil & Gas



Other Sectors



Canadian Total





The 2020 predictions from Environment Canada show that oil sands emissions will more than double, while emissions from transportation will increase slightly. It’s a much different story from the 2010 numbers, of course, but that just points to expected demand increases from outside of Canada. Right now, passenger transportation is a much bigger contributor to GHG emissions.

So, that begs the question, why aren’t environmentalists protesting in front of auto manufacturing plants? Use of passenger vehicles is directly contributing to oil sands development. Shouldn’t we be preventing their production instead of subsidizing it?

According to the International Organization of Motor Vehicle Manufacturers, Canada produced just under one million cars, and 1.1 million commercial vehicles in 2011. According to the U.S. EPA Household Carbon Footprint Calculator, the average vehicle in the U.S. produces about 12,500 pounds (5.7 tonnes) of CO2 equivalent in a year. This may seem small (about 25%), compared to Pembina’s estimated 22.4 Mt for the Oil Sands. But, those numbers do not include the vast number of passenger cars imported from other countries that end up on our roads. Nor does it include the current emissions from over 21 million registered road vehicles in Canada in 2009 (Statistics Canada). In 2011, net sales of gasoline and diesel fuel were over 58 billion litres (Statistics Canada). That footprint, based on 2.3 kg of CO2 per litre of gasoline and 2.7 kg of CO2 per litre of diesel, is 92 Mt from gasoline and 48 Mt from diesel. Fuel consumption accounts for 140 Mt of CO2 – over six times the footprint of Keystone!

So, why don’t environmentalists protest in front of auto plants? Keystone and other pipelines are being built because of demand for gasoline and other refined products. GHG emissions from passenger transportation have been double that of the oil sands and multiples of what Keystone might add. Based on those numbers it is clear that the real problem isn’t “big oil” or “dirty” oil sands – it is our consumption patterns. Shouldn’t the environmentalists be protesting that instead?


Dr. Jennifer Winter is a Research Associate at The School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary