Click each heading for more detailed information.
In addition to greenhouse gases, oilsands operations release large volumes of pollutants into the air.
- These emissions include nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter.1
- These chemicals are known to affect human health and contribute to air pollution problems.2
- Oilsands extraction is a major point source of air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide. While there have been some improvements in reducing the volumes of air pollutants produced per barrel, the overall growth in the industry means that absolute growth in air emissions will impact air quality for communities who reside in the region.3
Producing a barrel of bitumen creates more than twice as much nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide emissions as producing a barrel of conventional oil.4
- Emissions intensity (grams of pollutant per barrel of bitumen or SCO produced) are:5
- Nitrogen oxides: 61.5 g/bbl for in situ operations and 81.3 g/bbl for mining operations.
- Sulphur dioxide: 41.4 g/bbl for in situ operations and 449.4 g/bbl for mining operations.
- Particulate matter: 1.5 g/bbl for in situ operations and 4.4 g/bbl for mining operations.
- Annual emissions from oilsands operations in 2006:6
- 45,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides
- 115,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide
- 74,000 tonnes of volatile organic compounds
Sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are major contributors to acid rain formation.
- Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, which are downwind from the oilsands operations, are highly sensitive to acid rain.7
Air pollutant concentration guidelines in Alberta are less stringent than internationally accepted standards.
- The Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives (AAQO) are intended to provide protection of the environment and human health, while recognizing principles of sustainability that include environmental, social, and economic factors.8
- In comparison with guidelines established by the World Health Organization, AAQOs permit higher concentrations of particulate matter, 1.5 times the hourly-average concentrations of NO2, and over six times the daily-maximum concentrations for SO2.9,10
Even with the higher allowable concentrations in Alberta, the AAQOs were frequently exceeded by oilsands operators in recent years — with an increasing trend.
- According to a report, the air quality objectives were exceeded 1,556 times in 2009 in the Athabasca region, up from 47 times in 2004.11
updated April 2013
- 1. Royal Society of Canada, Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.
- 2. Environment Canada, National Pollutant Release Inventory, 2007 Summary, section 188.8.131.52 “Criteria Air Contaminants” (accessed January 29, 2013).
- 3. Jennifer Grant, Eli Angen and Simon Dyer, Forecasting the impacts of oilsands expansion (Pembina Institute 2013), 5.
- 4. J. Bergerson and D. Keith, “Life cycle assessment of oilsands technologies,” Proceedings of the Alberta Energy Futures Project Workshop, 2006.
- 5. Jennifer Grant, Eli Angen and Simon Dyer, Forecasting the impacts of oilsands expansion (Pembina Institute 2013), 5. http://www.pembina.org/pub/2455
- 6. Environment Canada (NPRI), "2006 Air Pollutant Emissions for Canada: Version 1" (accessed January 29, 2013).
- 7. Environment Canada, "Acid Rain FAQ" (accessed January 29, 2013) .
- 8. Government of Alberta, "Lower Athabasca Region: Air Quality Management Framework – For Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) Ambient Air Quality Objectives" (accessed January 29, 2013)
- 9. World Health Organization, WHO Air quality guidelines for particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide: Summary of risk assessment, (2005).
- 10. Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development, Alberta Ambient Air Quality Objectives and Guidelines Summary, (2013).
- 11. Environmental Defense, Dirty Oil, Dirty Air: Ottawa's Broken Pollution Promise (2010) (accessed January 10, 2011)