Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Alberta Tar Sands Pollution 64 Times Worse Than Reported

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The Canadian tar sands, also called oil sands, are a massive site of oil extraction in the province of Alberta. They cover an area larger than England and are one of the biggest industrial projects on the planet. The type of oil in the tar sands is called “bitumen.” which is extremely heavy and difficult to extract. Getting it from deep in underground to the surface can use up massive amounts of water — about what a small city might use on a daily basis. Even more water and energy is needed to refine it for commercial use and the amount of climate-polluting greenhouse gases emitted per barrel of tar sands oil can be 30% higher than conventional oil.

Put another way, it is some of the dirtiest of fossil fuels, not only when it comes to extraction but also when it is consumed. Unfortunately, the government of Alberta considers the oil extracted from the tar sands as a gift from the gods and has made it the basis of the province’s economy. Any effort to reduce the amount of oil extracted is met with fierce resistance bordering on hysteria the likes of which you would expect to see from oil ministers in Middle East kingdoms.

Measuring Emissions From Alberta Tar Sands

Now a group of researchers led by environmental engineer Drew Gentner at Yale and chemist John Liggio at Environment and Climate Change Canada have used airplanes to measure the total emissions from the Alberta tar sands. Their research showed that those emissions are 20 to 64 times more intensive than previously reported.

The team factored out greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and tracked only molecules important to air quality, many of which haven’t been previously monitored above the tar sands. These carbon-based gases can seed particulate pollution in the air and react with other chemicals to form ground-level ozone.

The researchers said most reports of organic emissions look only at a sub-category called volatile organic compounds, which evaporate easily and are usually assumed to account for most air pollution. The latest study takes a broader approach, also looking at semi-volatile and low volatility compounds that vaporize less readily. The whole collection covers probably tens of thousands of compounds ranging from small molecules such as acetone to the kinds of heavy carbon based molecules that might be found in diesel fuel.

Their study was published on January 25, 2024 in the journal Science. In a summary, editor H. Jesse Smith said, “Air pollution from gaseous organic compounds generated by petrochemical extraction typically is estimated using measurements of a subset of those species, volatile organic compounds. [The research team] showed that this approach can vastly underestimate the true magnitude of the problem.

“Their aircraft-based measurements of total gas-phase organic carbon concentrations over the Athabasca oil sands region of Alberta, Canada, revealed that emissions from that region alone were much larger than estimates made on the basis of more limited arrays of species by as much as a factor of 64. The under-reported species included abundant precursors to secondary air pollution that must be included in organic carbon pollution monitoring and reporting.” In the abstract to the study, the researchers said,

Anthropogenic organic carbon emissions reporting has been largely limited to subsets of chemically speciated volatile organic compounds. However, new aircraft-based measurements revealed total gas-phase organic carbon emissions that exceed oil sands industry–reported values by 1900% to over 6300%, the bulk of which was due to unaccounted-for intermediate-volatility and semi-volatile organic compounds.

Measured facility-wide, emissions represented approximately 1% of extracted petroleum, resulting in total organic carbon emissions equivalent to that from all other sources across Canada combined. These real world observations demonstrate total organic carbon measurements as a means of detecting unknown or under-reported carbon emissions regardless of chemical features. Because reporting gaps may include hazardous, reactive, or secondary air pollutants, fully constraining the impact of anthropogenic emissions necessitates routine, comprehensive total organic carbon monitoring as an inherent check on mass closure.

“No rules have been broken, or guidelines exceeded here,” Janetta McKenzie, an oil and gas analyst for the Pembina Institute, a think tank in Calgary, Canada told Nature. “But that speaks to some issues in our rules and our guidelines.” The Canadian government is collaborating with industry and other partners to learn where that discrepancy comes from. “We’re working on it.” Liggio says.

Tar Sands And Indigenous People

For decades, Indigenous communities in the region have complained about the health impact of toxic air caused by the oil sands operations. Jesse Cardinal, from the indigenous led group Keepers of the Water, said the report confirmed what many communities had been experiencing for years. “We are told this is all within the limits and OK but this report backs up what the communities living in these areas experience. It is so bad they cannot open their windows because it hurts their lungs to breathe, especially at night.”

The researchers examined emissions from surface mining operations as well as extraction from deeper deposits of bitumen. They noted the importance of post-extraction waste management practices, such as “tailings processing” where toxic sludge is left to dry and release volatile organic compounds and other pollutants into the open air.

John Liggio told The Guardian, “The study featured new measurements of total reactive organic chemicals onboard a research aircraft that reveal under-estimated emissions by a factor of 1900% to over 6300%. These emission underestimates were not just observed at the more well known surface mining operations, but also from in situ extraction facilities that represent over 50% of production with projected increases.”

The Takeaway

In the book Kochland by Christopher Leonard, the author explains that the US government at one time offered generous incentives to refineries who would accept oil from the Alberta tar sands, which is harder and more expensive to refine that most other oils. The incentives were a favor to the government of Canada because Alberta was having trouble finding buyers for its crud tar sands oil.

Charles Koch and his brother David bought a refinery in the upper Midwest that was built to process tar sands oil. Thanks to those incentives, the business was spectacularly profitable. The Kochs used their profits to build an organization headed by the Heritage Foundation, whose main goal is opposing Big Government and economic forces that distort the free market — like incentives and subsidies. The irony boggles the mind. The conservative movement founded by Charles Koch led inexorably to a form of social pollution known as willful stupidity, whose most notorious exponent is a certain disgraced former president.

The gates of history turn on tiny hinges, my high school history teacher, Mrs. Monahon, liked to say. Were it not for those subsidies on Alberta tar sands oil, Charles Koch might be just another used car salesman and America would not be sliding toward a second civil war. There’s more pollution associated with fossil fuels than the kind that leads to global heating, Food for thought.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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