EDMONTON – A new study released Monday suggests environmental assessments of oilsands projects have underestimated the impact of pollution, raising questions about the accuracy of data used as part of the approval process. Despite taking into account emissions from industry-related activities, researchers from the University of Toronto found estimates in environmental impact statements submitted to regulators were insufficient to explain existing contamination levels in northern Alberta.
“Our study shows emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons estimated in environmental impact statements conducted to approve developments in the oilsands region are likely too low,” a summary document reads. “This finding implies that environmental concentrations estimated using those emissions may also be too low.
“The potential therefore exists that estimation of future risk to humans and wildlife because of surface mining in the region has been underestimated.” Conducted in 2012 and 2013, the research found inconsistencies between recorded emissions and predictions of environmental impacts compiled by consulting companies and listed on the Canadian government’s National Pollutant Release Inventory.
“The main finding is that we need a better accounting of the release of toxic substances in the oilsands region,” said Frank Wania, a professor of environmental chemistry who presided over the study. “Certainly, there is a shortcoming.” Examining the reported level of emissions, Wania and his team concluded that other significant sources of contamination need to be considered, including toxins from tailings ponds that are spread as they evaporate into the air.
The amount of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs that oilsands’ operators dispose in tailings ponds is five times greater than those measured in direct air emissions, the study says, leading researchers to conclude evaporation from containment ponds is a likely source. “The results of simulations reaffirm that emissions estimates that take into account only direct emissions to the air do not appear to be adequate representations of actual emissions in the region,” the report says. “Furthermore, indirect emissions from secondary sources to the atmosphere, such as tailings ponds, may be a more significant contributor of oilsands PAHs than direct emissions to air.”
The study recommends new methods be implemented to estimate emissions of contaminants from other sources during environmental assessments of energy projects. “A comprehensive picture of organic containment sources and pathways in the oilsands region has yet to be elucidated,” the document says. “Our results highlight the need for improved accounting of PAH emissions from oilsands operations, especially in light of continued expansion.” Wania said monitoring is improving through a joint Canada-Alberta effort, but that more work has to be done. “Evaporation from the tailings ponds is one of the possible pathways that hasn’t been looked at in the context of emissions,” he said. Kevin Zahara, spokesman for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said the department needs time to analyze the report.
“We rigorously monitor oilsands emissions and set strict emission standards as a part of the approval for any operation,” Zahara said. “Managing Alberta’s environment is not just one policy in isolation, we take a holistic approach which balances environmental protection with economic development, more than what any other jurisdiction is doing.” Simon Dyer, director of Alberta and the north for the Pembina Institute, said the study raises a number of issues.
“Decision-makers need to (consider) this information in determining if it is appropriate to approve new projects,” he said. “Regulatory submissions already show that planned production will exceed legal limits for pollutants which means approvals must be slowed or better technologies implemented.”