Chemical Air Pollution Around The Tar Sands Is Getting Worse, Data Shows


View of smoke plumes emitted from the Syncrude upgrader plant north of Fort McMurray, northern Alberta, Canada.

Chemical air pollution surrounding the primary areas where tar sands oil is mined and processed in Canada is on the rise, according to new data released by the Alberta government.

The 2012 data released Thursday showed that levels of both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide — chemicals that help cause acid rain, smog, and myriad health problems — have risen to levels two and three on a government-set scale of four at several monitoring sites between Fort McMurray and Fort McKay. Level four is the highest limit allowed to protect human health, but the report said levels two and three are still cause for concern and that there should be further investigation into the source of pollution. Nitrogen dioxide is also a greenhouse gas.

“It’s important to understand the triggers are well below the [legal limit], so we are not anywhere near an issue where will have health issues for humans or our biodiversity,” Environment Minister Robin Campbell said Wednesday, according to the Edmonton Journal.

Though two-thirds of the air quality monitoring stations that reported higher levels were near tar sands facilities, the Alberta government has been reluctant to say that the declining air quality is due to the development process. Tar sands oil — the type of oil that would be transported across America in the Keystone XL pipeline if approved by the Obama administration — has a unique development process that some scientists say emits twice the amount of air pollution as conventional oil development.

“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,” the Canadian non-profit Pembina Institute’s website reads.

Tar sands oil is controversial because of its unique, thick, gooey makeup. Because of this quality, producers must use “non-conventional” methods of getting the oil out of the ground, such as pumping superheated steam underground to make the sand-laced oil easier to extract. Those methods are more carbon-intensive, meaning they emit more greenhouse gases.

Tar sands production also causes a great deal of physical pollution. In Alberta, where the sands are mined, federal scientists have found that the area’s deposits are now surrounded by a nearly 7,500-square-mile ring of mercury.