Oilsands Air Pollution Emissions Underestimated, Finds University of Toronto Study

oilsands pollution photo by kris krug

A study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto has found that air pollution emissions released by oilsands operations in Alberta are likely two to three times higher than previously estimated.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed U.S. journal, modeled levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) released by oilsands bitumen extraction. PAHs are toxic air pollutants released by the burning of fossil fuels, and can be highly carcinogenic.

“When dealing with chemicals that have such great potential to harm people and animals, it is absolutely vital that we truly understand how, and how much they are being released into the environment,” said Abha Parajulee, co-author of the report, in a press release.

The researchers found PAH estimates “in environmental impact assessments conducted to approve developments in the Athabasca oil sands region are likely too low.”

The study raises concerns about the accuracy of government-conducted environmental impact assessments on the oilsands, following the recent U.S. State Department report on Keystone XL, which claimed that the pipeline would have little environmental impact.

“If you use these officially reported emissions for the oil sands area you get an emissions density that is lower than just about anywhere else in the world,” study co-author Frank Wania said. Wania is professor in the department of physical and environmental sciences at the University of Toronto.

Corporate estimates for oilsands pollution were “inadequate and incomplete,” said Wania, insisting that a “complete and accurate account of the emissions” would be required before it is possible to “make a meaningful assessment of the environmental impact and of the risk to human health.”

Previous government-approved estimates for PAH emissions from the oilsands, which fall within regulatory levels, do not take into account indirect pathways for the pollutant to enter the atmosphere, including evaporation from tailing ponds.

The researchers said that their model's predictions are consistent with actual PAH measurements taken near the Athabasca oilsands region by academic scientists and Environment Canada, which are much higher than reported industry estimates.

The researchers' model also factored in PAHs released by transport and storage of waste materials in oilsands production.

“Tailing ponds are not the end of the journey for the pollutants they contain. PAHs are highly volatile, meaning they escape into the air much more than many people think,” Parajulee said.

“It was shocking to me to understand that current environmental impact assessments do not take [the volatility of PAHs] into account at all,” said Jonathan Martin, an associate professor in the department of environmental toxicology at the University of Alberta, who reviewed the study before its publication.

“It just shows how little we know,” Martin said. He added that PAH measurements need to be taken above tailing ponds to confirm the research model's projections, which would require corporate permission.

Wania said that Environment Canada has shown interest in the report's findings, and has agreed to fund further research.

“We are not at the world-class level to really be championing that,” said Andrew Read, a researcher with Pembina Institute, and a member of the joint oilsands monitoring program. Read expressed doubt that there was adequate funding to properly monitor oilsands emissions.

“There is a concern there that we are not doing the effective monitoring that is necessary to really understand the full impact on the environment,” Read said.

The results of the University of Toronto-funded study were published Monday.

Image Credit: Kris Krug