Skip to content

Alberta tar sands pollution up to 6,300% higher than industry reported, finds study

The study, led by Canadian federal scientists, adds to other research that found Alberta's oil sands were underreporting climate changing carbon emissions.
The tar sands upgrader plant at the Syncrude mine north of Fort McMurray, Alta.

Aircraft flying over Alberta’s oil sands have found emissions of organic carbon — a primary driver of air pollution — between 1,900 per cent and 6,300 per cent higher than industry has reported.

That’s more than all the organic carbon pollution emitted across Canada combined, according to the new study, led by Canadian federal scientists and published in the journal Science Thursday. 

Drew Gentner, a researcher at Yale University’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering and one of 24 co-authors of the study, said the previously unaccounted for emissions from the Athabasca oil sands were largely made up of volatile organic compounds overlooked in routine monitoring. He said they were surprised by the massive gap. 

“These compounds are important reactive chemicals in the atmosphere with implications for air quality and the environment,” said Gentner. 

Those compounds react with sunlight to produce fine particulate matter — which is linked to major health and climate effects — and gases like ozone, a key component of smog and leading cause of pollution in Canadian cities. 

Organic carbon pollution levels were found to be more than 1,500 per cent higher than U.S. mega-cities like Los Angeles, Calif., a city long known for smog.

Ozone has also been known to reduce wheat crop yields by up to a third, costing agriculture in East Asia up to US$63 billion a year, according to one 2022 study

“Depending on the pollutant, air quality impacts can span from nearby communities in the region (e.g., Fort McMurray, Indigenous communities) to downwind impacts on humans and the environment,” said Gentner in an email.

Past monitoring has failed to capture the full scope of organic carbon pollution because it wasn’t looking at a diverse enough range of molecular sizes often associated with heavy oil and bitumen deposits. Such deposits are expected to account for 40 per cent of global oil production by 2040, the study found. 

With an estimated 1.7 trillion barrels of oil, the Alberta oil sands make up most of Canada’s oil production and a large share of its carbon pollution. 

Study the latest evidence industry is underreporting emissions

In a study released last April, some of the same researchers at Environment and Climate Change Canada used aircraft, satellite and historical data to reassess climate changing emissions from the oil sands. 

They found the oil-producing region could be producing 31 million tonnes of unreported carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year — 65 per cent higher than industry reported. 

The latest study found organic carbon pollution to be 20 to 64 times greater than reported in Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory, which is required the report the entire range of volatile organic compounds. That’s 13 per cent more than Canada’s entire annual output of organic carbon emissions.

“Measured [volatile organic compounds] only account for a fraction of total measured organic carbon,” said the study.

“Thus, the oil sands sector alone represents a dominant fraction of country-wide gas-phase organic carbon emissions, even when only including the facilities studied here.” 

The researchers concluded that current surveillance of organic carbon pollution would need to change if Canada were to accurately report the full air quality and environmental impacts of the oil sands operations.