OTTAWA–Pollution will continue to plague Alberta's oil sands despite plans to pipe harmful greenhouse gases deep underground, according to documents obtained by the Toronto Star.
Part of the task of cleaning up the oil sands involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions and storing them in geological reservoirs in western Canada.
But chemicals linked to acid rain, respiratory problems and ozone depletion could escape into the atmosphere at an even faster rate, thanks to an estimated tripling of production from one million barrels a day in 2007 to 3.4 million barrels a day in 2017. That could occur despite proposed national caps on air contaminants.
By capturing about 200 megatonnes a year of carbon dioxide, sequestration (as carbon dioxide storage is known) is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by almost 80 per cent in 2017, says an Environment Canada study obtained under the Access to Information Act.
But, the study notes, "there are emissions of CO2 and air contaminants resulting from the generation of the energy required by (carbon capture and storage) facilities. The CO2 emissions offset the volumes captured by the facilities, while the air contaminant emissions add to the load on the environment."
The June 2008 study predicts emissions of sulphur dioxide, the main ingredient in acid rain, will rise by up to 34 per cent by 2017. Nitrous oxides – responsible for ozone layer depletion – will rise by up to 24 per cent. Ozone depletion is linked to higher rates of skin cancer, among other health problems.
Tiny particulate matter is set to jump by more than 60 per cent in the oil sands and could lead to hazy skies and aggravate existing lung and heart problems.
"It is dirty oil for any number of reasons, and it's not just carbon dioxide," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, which has researched the links between oil sands production and health problems.
"It's very clear that we need to turn our attention to those other types of pollutants or else it's going to be a disaster in the future."
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Alberta's dirty oil is shaping up as a key issue for Ottawa as the Conservative government prepares to build bridges with U.S. President Barack Obama's incoming administration, which has signalled plans to develop cleaner energy sources.
The increase in pollution-causing chemicals is due in part to the expected rise in oil production. It's also due to an anticipated switch from the use of relatively clean-burning natural gas in extraction and upgrading operations to the use of cheap carbon-based fuels like petroleum coke and asphaltene.
Industry is "evaluating" a switch to cheaper fuel sources, but it hasn't happened yet, said Rick Hyndman, a senior policy adviser with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers in Calgary.
"When gas was $10 a gigajoule, that (switch) looked a lot more attractive than where it is now," he said.
Natural gas prices spiked last spring at more than $12 a gigajoule (a gigajoule is equal to about 30 litres of gasoline) but were less than half that price last month, though more price jumps are forecast.
Hyndman said companies are already working to install new technologies that will reduce sulphur dioxide emissions.
Draft air pollution regulations released by the federal Tories in 2007 promised an overall 50 per cent cut to emissions by 2015, with oil sands producers forced to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 55 per cent. Nitrous oxides would be allowed to rise by 5 per cent and volatile organic compounds by 60 per cent.
But those national standards were deemed unlikely to achieve the government's larger goal of cutting air pollutants in half and are now "up in the air," one participant in an expert panel that is reviewing Ottawa's rules told the Star.