A new study by University of Toronto researchers is raising questions as to whether pollutants from the oilsands are being accurately measured and suggests that current federal estimates are underestimated.
The study, published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, reviewed emission estimates of a fuel by-product called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAHs) using computer models. It concluded that the estimates are “likely too low.”
Co-author Frank Wania, a professor at U of T’s Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences, said the researchers referred to the two sources of official emissions reporting: the National Pollutant Release Inventory and the various environmental assessments that have to be conducted prior to approval.
“We believe these emissions that have been estimated and reported in these sources I have mentioned are clearly too low to explain the levels that are being measured,” he said.
“We believe it is because the people who made these estimates didn’t account for all the pathways. They only accounted for smokestacks and what comes out of exhaust in mine vehicles, like the cars and trucks.”
According to his computer models, Wania suggests that tailings ponds and other “pathways” such as end pit lakes are likely to be sources of pollutants through evaporation and should be included in the official estimates.
He adds that the results show the need for improved methods for accounting of oilsands emissions and impacts—in particular on freshwater bodies. Ultimately, the greatest concern his research raises is that future risk to human and wildlife health may have been underestimated, he said.
“The real issue is that emissions are not conducted for their own sake—they are the starting point for the bridge to human health and the environment,” said Wania.
“What needs to be done is a much more comprehensive and accurate account of the pathways by which PAHs can be released during mining and processing, then repeat the human health and environment assessment.”
The findings have generated interest on Parliament Hill, with New Democrat MP Linda Duncan (Edmonton-Strathcona) asking Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq this week what action she has taken to comply with duties under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
“We will continue to work with our partners, like the province of Alberta, to launch world class scientific monitoring systems for the oilsands,” Colin Carrie, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment, told the Commons in response.
“This is really significant,” said Duncan in an interview. “This is an issue that comes up all the time about the efficacy of the projections that are tabled by industry about what the emissions are likely to be. They form the basis of an energy board decision.”
Kaven Baker-Voakes is a freelance reporter based in Ottawa.