The fundamental problem, however, is the growth of fossil-fuel addiction itself. Of the trillion or so barrels of oil produced since the dawn of the Oil Age in the 19th century, a full quarter have been burned in just the first decade of the 21st century. Yet U.S. coal-fired power plants produce more than 30 times more CO2 than Albertan oil sands facilities—45 million metric tons of greenhouse gases versus nearly two billion metric tons. "If you think that using other petroleum sources is much better, then you're delusional," says chemical engineer Murray Gray, scientific director of the Center for Oil Sands Innovation at the University of Alberta. "Increasing coal use worldwide gives me a lot more pause than the pattern of petroleum consumption."
Even the oil sands ultimate consumption in a gasoline, diesel or jet engine only results in 500 kilograms of CO2-equivalent per barrel of refined petroleum products, meaning total oil sands emissions from well to wheel are considerably lower than those of this nation's more than 500 power plants burning coal to generate electricity.
That said, whereas CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants in the U.S. have declined, greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands have doubled since the turn of the century and look set to double again by the end of this decade—the primary source of emissions growth for the entire country of Canada. As a result, the province of Alberta's emissions grew faster than they did for states such as Texas or Florida. In fact, the only thing that may slow such emissions growth is the development of lighter, cheaper oil in places such as North Dakota's Bakken Shale. But even with such reduction, the problem of tapping tar sands for petroleum just keeps getting stickier.