Oilsands pollutants underestimated: study

The research focused on volatile organic compounds

CALGARY — Federal government scientists say they have devised an accurate way to directly measure air pollutants from oilsands mines and suggest industry estimates for certain harmful emissions have been much too low.

The research, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on volatile organic compounds, or VOCs — carbon-based substances that can be damaging to the environment and human health.

Oilsands companies have indirect ways of calculating their mines’ estimated VOC emissions. Methods include extrapolating from other substances they measure from smokestacks or from emissions associated with a specific activity, said lead author Shao-Meng Li, a senior research scientist at Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Li and his team set out to compare those figures against direct readings they took from the air above the mines.

Their experiment took measurements from a plane flown at various altitudes in a box-like pattern above oilsands mines in northeastern Alberta. That created a virtual wall of sorts around developments as big as 275 square kilometres.

“Most of these instruments are very bulky, so they cannot be mounted on the outside,” said Li.

The interior of the aircraft looks like a cargo plane with a dozen or so seats for the scientists and racks of gadgets along the wall. Li said the air was brought into containers inside the cabin through special tubing and samples were taken back to the lab for analysis.

The amount of overall VOCs measured on the flights wound up being two to 4 1/2 times higher than figures companies reported to Environment Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory.

“It’s quite a powerful mechanism to make those kind of measurements,” said Stewart Cober, co-author of the paper and manager in Environment Canada’s Air Quality Research Division.

“It’s a mechanism we wouldn’t have been able to do 15 years ago because the technology didn’t exist.”

The flights were made in the late summer of 2013. The team is planning another go-round in 2018 to see how the method works in different weather conditions.

Cober said the technique has the potential to be applied to other oil and gas projects, such as hydraulic fracturing sites and in situ oilsands developments, in which steam is used to extract bitumen from deep underground.

“What we’ve done is demonstrated that there is a way to make more accurate measurements,” he said.

Cober hopes the research means emissions can be estimated more accurately in the future, perhaps with industry players doing their own airborne readings.

“It is a game changer,” he said. ”Certainly we’re very excited about it.”

Chelsie Klassen of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, wasn’t so sure.

“This study took a snapshot measurement and used that information to determine an hourly emissions profile without consideration of seasonal effects,” said Klassen.

“Further research is needed to make an interpretation of annual emissions to increase accuracy and understand this issue. Industry is actively working to more accurately quantify emissions from surface mining activities.”

Lauren Krugel, The Canadian Press

Just Posted

Rough sleepers keep city staff busy even in winter

The cost of removing homeless camps discovered in remote natural areas in… Continue reading

Former prison employee pleads guilty to role in inmate escape

Corrections Canada employee smuggled cash into prison for inmate who later escaped

Gesundheit! Stifling a sneeze can cause injuries in rare cases, experts say

TORONTO — With cases of flu continuing to rise in Canada, there’s… Continue reading

‘Reprehensible’: Trudeau abortion policy raises ire of U.S. right

WASHINGTON — In what’s almost certainly a first in the lengthy history… Continue reading

WATCH: Rebels play floor hockey with Annie L. Gaetz students

The Rebels may be on a losing streak but they were definitely… Continue reading

Beer Canada calls on feds to axe increasing beer tax as consumption trends down

OTTAWA — A trade association for Canada’s beer industry wants the federal… Continue reading

Central Albertans recall Hawaii’s false missile alert

Former Red Deer councillor Paul Harris was hanging out at the Ka’anapali… Continue reading

This robotic maid takes us one step closer to ‘The Jetsons’

Imagine this: You’re rushing to get ready for work — juggling emails,… Continue reading

Milan line offers canine couture for pampered pooches

Milan has long been the world’s ready-to-wear fashion leader. Now, dogs are… Continue reading

Kim Kardashian West and husband Kanye welcome baby girl

NEW YORK — It’s a girl for Kim Kardashian West and her… Continue reading

Advocate poll takers oppose plastic bag ban

Red Deer Advocate readers like their plastic bags. In an Advocate poll,… Continue reading

Photo: Chilly work in Veterans’ Park

What a chilly job but somebody has to do it.… Continue reading

Boy, 15, one of three hit in Vancouver shooting

Police believe a man in his 20s was the target of the shooting

Most Read


Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $185 for 260 issues (must live in delivery area to qualify) Unlimited Digital Access 99 cents for the first four weeks and then only $15 per month Five-day delivery plus unlimited digital access for $15 a month