Oilsands | Pembina Institute

Alberta's Oilsands Climate Impacts Water Impacts Tailings Reclamation Air Pollution

Air Pollution

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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

Alberta air quality guidelines vs WHO

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

Air pollution exceedances in the Athabasca region

updated April 2013



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