Air quality reports reveal tar sands emissions higher than companies report

The CBC reports that air samples taken over northern Alberta operations suggest previous pollution figures could be way off and operations in Alberta's tar sands may be emitting significantly more carbon dioxide than previously calculated according to newly published research from federal scientists.

Researchers, including some from Environment Canada, calculated emissions rates for four major tar sands mining operations using air samples collected in 2013 on 17 airplane flights over the area.

The results, which were published in the journal Nature Communications, show that “carbon dioxide emissions are 64 per cent higher, on average, than what the companies themselves reported to the federal government using the standard United Nations reporting framework for greenhouse gases.”

If other companies have under-reported emissions, “Canada's overall greenhouse gas emissions could be as much as six per cent more than thought — throwing a wrench into the calculations that underpin government emissions strategies.”

Big Oil companies have to report their carbon emissions to the federal government's national inventory as part of Canada's obligations under the United Nations convention on climate change.

For the study, scientists gathered hundreds of air samples during more than 80 hours of flights over four major surface mining operations in northern Alberta including Syncrude Canada's Mildred Lake facility, Suncor's Millennium and North Steepbank site, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.'s Horizon mine, and what was then Shell's Albian Jackpine operation, now majority owned by Canadian Natural.

The study found that “the gap between the facilities' reported carbon dioxide emissions and the levels calculated by researchers was 13 per cent for the Suncor site, 36 per cent for the Horizon mine, 38 per cent for Jackpine and 123 per cent for Syncrude.”

The review left out emissions from all tar sands operations that use in-situ extraction, which involves pumping steam into the ground to get the petroleum out and is considered even more polluting than surface extractions. Most of the tar sands require in-situ extraction. This means the overall amount of underreported greenhouse gas emissions could be significantly higher.

"The bottom line is we still have more work to do in terms of really determining how much is being emitted," said an Environment Canada scientist.

The Council of Canadians is calling for urgent action to transition to a low-carbon future. Canada is going in the wrong direction – we are still stuck in the tar sands, the fastest growing source of our greenhouse gas emissions in North America. Our government’s focus on export-oriented trade in the name of becoming an “energy superpower” is trumping needed action on climate change and energy security. Climate justice demands that we address the root causes of the climate crisis, including unsustainable production, consumption and trade. Real solutions must be based on democratic accountability, ecological sustainability and social justice.