Total Organic Carbon Concentrations Measured Over Canadian Oil Sands Reveal Huge Underestimate Of Emissions

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New measurements of total gaseous organic carbon concentrations in the air over the Athabasca oil sands in Canada suggest that traditional methods of estimating this pollution can severely underestimate emissions, according to an analysis by Megan He and colleagues.

Using aircraft-based measurements, He et al. conclude that the total gaseous organic carbon emissions from oil sands operations exceed industry-reported values by 1900% to over 6300% across the studied facilities.

“Measured facility-wide emissions represented approximately 1% of extracted petroleum, resulting in total organic carbon emissions equivalent to that from all other sources across Canada combined,” the researchers write.

The total oil sands organic carbon emissions are also larger than the reactive organic gas emissions from all anthropogenic sources – from chemical products to cars – in large megacities such as Los Angeles, they note. Air pollution resulting from anthropogenic organic carbon emissions has a significant impact on air quality, playing a part in the formation of tropospheric ozone and organic aerosols, which affect human health and climate.

The traditional way of measuring and monitoring these emissions from industrial operations such as oil sands is to focus on limited subsets of volatile organic compounds released to the atmosphere, assuming that this accounts for most emissions.

The coupled aircraft and lab study by He et al. demonstrates that there are many organic compounds unaccounted for in this approach that contribute to air pollution. The researchers examined emissions from both surface mining operations as well as extraction from deeper, in situ deposits of bitumen, the latter of which have seen comparatively less research despite increasing production.

The researchers also noted the importance of post-extraction waste management practices, such as tailings processing, to overall carbon emissions.

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