A recent study published in the journal Science reveals that toxic emissions from the Canadian tar sands, already considered one of the dirtiest fossil fuels, have been significantly underestimated. The research focuses on the vast Athabasca oil sands in Canada and indicates that air pollution from these oil sands exceeds industry-reported emissions by an astonishing 1,900% to over 6,300% across the studied facilities.
The implications of the study suggest that damaging reactive pollutants from the oil sands are equivalent to those from all other human-made sources across Canada, raising serious concerns about public health. The findings indicate severe health implications, as the underestimated levels of air pollution are shown to be much higher than previously reported.
Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist for Greenpeace Canada, emphasizes that these findings validate the concerns of downwind Indigenous communities that have been expressing the adverse health impacts of oil sands operations for decades. The study sheds light on the urgent need for companies responsible for oil sands operations to address and mitigate the health-damaging air pollution.
The Canadian tar sands, also known as oil sands, represent a massive site of oil extraction in the province of Alberta, covering an area larger than England. This industrial project is one of the largest on the planet and has experienced record production levels in recent years. The type of oil extracted, known as “bitumen,” is heavy and challenging to extract, requiring significant water usage, energy, and emitting higher levels of greenhouse gases compared to conventional oil.
The study, conducted using aircraft to measure pollutants, reveals that traditional methods of measuring air pollutants have missed many organic compounds released during the oil sands extraction process. Indigenous communities in the region have long complained about the health impacts of toxic air caused by these operations.
Jesse Cardinal, from the Indigenous-led group Keepers of the Water, notes that the report validates the experiences of communities living in these areas, where the air quality is so poor that residents cannot even open their windows due to the impact on their respiratory health.
The researchers emphasized the importance of considering post-extraction waste management practices, such as “tailings processing,” where toxic sludge is left to dry. The study calls attention to the need for more comprehensive and accurate measurements of emissions to address the significant underestimation of air pollution.
As this information comes to light, there is an expectation for regulatory bodies, including the Canadian Environment and Climate Change ministry, to respond to these findings and take appropriate actions to address the environmental and health impacts associated with tar sands emissions.