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article imageNew study: Canada's oil sands emissions are higher than reported

By Karen Graham     Apr 23, 2019 in Environment
Ottawa - New federal research, published on Tuesday, suggests greenhouse gas emissions from Alberta's oilsands may be significantly higher than industry reports. This does not bode well for the new Conservative government in place in Alberta.
In a study published in the journal Nature Communications on April 23, 2019, Environment Canada scientists report four major oilsands mines are releasing an average of about one-third more carbon dioxide per barrel of oil than they report.
Carbon dioxide emission data is used for everything from determining national emissions levels to calculating carbon tax. And with the latest study released by an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change titled "Canada's Changing Climate Report" - higher emission levels in the oil sands may become a political football with Alberta's new Conservative government and environmentalists.
How emissions are measured
Differences in how emissions are measured are causing the discrepancies, according to the new study. Until recently, all emission measurements have been based on a combination of ground measurements and a whole lot of mathematical modeling, a so-called "ground-up approach" that is basically an estimation.
Albian Village and Jack Pine Mine  north east of Fort McMurray  Alberta Canada.
Albian Village and Jack Pine Mine, north east of Fort McMurray, Alberta Canada.
jasonwoodhead23 (CC BY 2.0)
Environment Canada used aircraft measurements over the Canadian oil sands to derive the first top-down, measurement-based determination of their annual CO2 emissions and intensities. Aircraft made a series of flights over four oil sand sites during the course of a month in 2013, analyzing air monitoring samples.
This study is the first to use actual field measurements taken from aerial overflights or top-down measurements. The results showing the underestimation by the industry of CO2 emissions also echo those of a previous Alberta study, which found methane emissions from heavy oil facilities were much higher than what was reported by the industry.
"There's still more work to be done,'' Lead author John 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 USGS uses drones to measure CO2 emissions.
The USGS uses drones to measure CO2 emissions.
Suncor’s facility was 13 percent over its estimated emissions. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.’s Horizon and Jackpine mines averaged 37 percent higher than they reported. Syncrude’s Mildred Lake mine was emitting two-and-a-quarter times more CO2 than they reported to Ottawa’s pollutant registry. All these results are very significant, according to Liggio.
Higher emissions and a rollback of regulations
While the petroleum industry has criticized the way the data was gathered, arguing flyover measurements only provide a snapshot and not long term readings, Liggio defends the work his team did. "We're looking at what they emit relative to what they produce,'' he said.
Liggio added, "Generally, the industry was positive and supportive. They do want to work together to get to the bottom of where the discrepancies are coming from.''
Syncrude s Mildred Lake plant in the Athabasca Oil Sands of Alberta  Canada.
Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant in the Athabasca Oil Sands of Alberta, Canada.
The Interior (CC BY 3.0)
It will be interesting to see where this crucial emissions report ends up in the greater mix of things in Alberta. Rachel Notley's leftwing New Democratic party lost to Jason Kenney and his right-wing United Conservative party (UCP) in what has been described as a bitter battle over the energy sector and a rollback of environmental regulations.
Premier-designate Kenney will have to deliver on promises he made to revitalize the region’s oil sands, much like Donald Trump promised to build pipelines in his campaign for president. But Kenney will have to contend with investors and an oil glut that has left the oil sands in the dust.
Not only that, revitalizing the industry today will be very costly. Added to Kenney's problems is raising the ire of the federal government if he tries to scale back environmental regulations below Trudeau’s emissions threshold. This will automatically trigger a carbon tax.
More about Canada, Oil sands, Environment canada, CO2 Emissions, jason kenney
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