Environment Canada scientists say four major oilsands mines are releasing an average of about one-third more carbon dioxide per barrel of oil than they report. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Environment Canada scientists say four major oilsands mines are releasing an average of about one-third more carbon dioxide per barrel of oil than they report. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

New study suggests oilsands greenhouse gas emissions underestimated

New federal research suggests greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta’s oilsands may be significantly higher than industry reports.

In a study published Tuesday, Environment Canada scientists say four major oilsands mines are releasing an average of about one-third more carbon dioxide per barrel of oil than they report — a crucial number used for everything from determining national emissions levels to calculating carbon tax.

Lead author John Liggio and his colleagues analyzed air monitoring samples captured in a series of flights above the four sites during the course of a month in 2013.

Suncor’s facility was 13 per cent over its estimated emissions.

But the emissions intensity of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon and Jackpine mines averaged 37 per cent higher than they reported. And Syncrude’s Mildred Lake mine was emitting two-and-a-quarter times more of the climate change-causing gas than it told Ottawa’s pollutant registry.

“We find a pretty significant difference,” said Liggio, whose paper is published in Nature Communications.

Until now, all carbon dioxide emission estimates from the oilsands have been based on a combination of some ground measurement and a great deal of mathematical modelling — so-called bottom-up estimation.

The new study is the first to use actual field measurements taken from aerial overflights, or top-down measurements.

The findings of industry underestimation echo those of a previous Alberta study, which found methane emissions from heavy oil facilities were much higher than thought. They also agree with many other studies that have compared bottom-up to top-down.

“There’s still more work to be done,” Liggio said. ”But I will say there are many, many studies using top-down approaches which have also shown that top-down (measurements) are generally higher.”

The measurements in Liggio’s paper include emissions from mining, processing, upgrading and tailings ponds.

Industry has criticized such flyover measurements for only providing a snapshot of emissions instead of long-term data.

Liggio defends his work, saying that measuring emissions against oil production evens out sudden spikes resulting from higher output.

“We’re looking at what they emit relative to what they produce,” he said.

He said his team is currently analyzing data from similar overflights conducted to measure oilsands emissions in two different seasons.

Industry has had a chance to comment on the paper, said Liggio.

“Generally, industry was positive and supportive. They do want to work together to get to the bottom of where the discrepancies are coming from.”

Liggio said the apparent problem at the four sites in the current paper could point to an issue throughout the industry. He adds the apparent underestimates occurred despite the fact the mines studied were using strict United Nation’s measurement protocols.

“The results indicate that overall (oilsands greenhouse gas) emissions may be underestimated and suggest that reporting that follows this Tier 3 approach may universally underestimate CO2 emissions,” the paper says.

Researchers don’t yet understand why top-down measurements tend to be so much higher than bottom-up estimates, Liggio said.

“In a complex facility like the oilsands, there are hundreds of sources, hundreds of stacks. It’s quite complicated.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

(Black Press file photo)
Police seeks suspects in Bowden armed robbery

Man was beaten and robbed of his wallet

Red Deer RCMP say Alexander King was last seen about a month ago. (Contributed)
Red Deer teen reported missing

RCMP ask for public’s assistance

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in the in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
Payette shouldn’t get same benefits as other ex-governors general: O’Toole

OTTAWA — Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole says it’s not appropriate for former… Continue reading

More back-alley murals, such as this one behind Can-West Travel, will be painted this summer before the City of Red Deer holds it Meet the Street arts and culture festival in September. (Advocate file photo).
City of Red Deer seeks more mural artists

Creating 10 more back-alley murals is the goal

Teachers with Centre-Nord School Division are holding a strike vote on Jan. 25 and 26. (Photo from Facebook)
Central Alberta teachers hold strike vote

Francophone teachers to cast votes

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
RCMP officer in Alberta charged with off-duty sexual assault in Edmonton

EDMONTON — Alberta’s police watchdog says an RCMP officer has been charged… Continue reading

Canada’s 29th Governor General Julie Payette looks on alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Senate chamber during her installation ceremony, in Ottawa on Monday, October 2, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says GG vetting process needs improvement after Payette resigns

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s admission Friday that he might have… Continue reading

NDP member of Parliament Lindsay Mathyssen speaks during a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
NDP warns of long delays in equal pay for women in federal pay equity rules

OTTAWA — The federal New Democrats say new rules to close a… Continue reading

President Joe Biden waves as he departs after attending Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington. Less than a week after the economic gut punch of cancelling Keystone XL, Canada is bracing for more bad news today from the White House. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Patrick Semansky
U.S. president to sign executive orders enacting stringent new Buy American regimen

WASHINGTON — Less than a week after the economic gut punch of… Continue reading

Black Press file photo
Wetaskiwin RCMP investigate fatal pedestrian collision

A 37-year-old man from Maskwacis has died in hospital as a result of his injuries.

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is administered to a personal support worker at the Ottawa Hospital Tuesday December 15, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canadian provinces push back vaccination plans as Pfizer deliveries grind to a halt

Some Canadian health-care workers are being told they’ll have to wait longer… Continue reading

A Shell logo is seen at a petrol station in London on January 20, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Kirsty Wigglesworth
Shell buys European electric car charging firm ubitricity

Experts say easier access to charging facilities key to successful rollout of electric vehicles

FILE— In this Feb. 23, 2019, file photo, Vashti Cunningham poses for photographers after winning the women’s high jump final at the USA Track & Field Indoor Championships in New York. Cunningham is one of the athletes who will be competing in the American Track League, which opens a four-week-long series on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 in an indoor setting at the University of Arkansas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez. File)
Back on track: Competing, not cash, lures big names to meet

American Track League begins a four-week indoor series at the University of Arkansas

Most Read