Oilsands could eventually acidify area size of Germany: study

Research involved scientists at Environment Canada as well as counterparts in Alberta, Saskatchewan

The largest and most precise study yet done on acid emissions from Alberta’s oilsands suggests they could eventually damage an area almost the size of Germany.

The study finds that in 2013 more than 330,000 square kilometres in northern Alberta and Saskatchewan absorbed acid deposits high enough to eventually damage life in rivers and lakes.

“This work is a warning,” said Paul Makar, an Environment Canada scientist and lead author on the paper published in the Journal of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.

“If emissions continue at 2013 levels, there will be ecosystem damage over a very large area.”

Some industry players have invested heavily in recent years to reduce sulphur and nitrogen emissions, which lead to the acidification of water and soil. But it’s not clear whether overall oilsands emissions have fallen.

The research involved scientists at Environment Canada as well as their counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan and from Trent University in Peterborough, Ont.

Their work began with a study of 90,000 lakes to determine how different water bodies responded to acids and at what point they would no longer be able to buffer them. That data was used to create a map of carrying capacities across a large swath of the northern prairie provinces.

Previous studies used grids of 45 square kilometres. This one resolves to 2.5 square kilometres.

The team used the latest datasets and techniques — including satellite imagery — to model how 2013 emissions were likely to affect forests, rivers and lakes. Predictions were checked against measurements in the field and the model was then refined.

“If those emissions levels continue, there will be ecosystem damage for aquatic ecosystems over an area that’s about the size of Germany,” Makar said.

The study says if emissions continue at the level studied, tree growth would be stunted. Water plants would suffer from increased toxins. Fish and the bugs they prey on would get sick and reproduce less easily.

Although previous studies have suggested dust from plant operations would provide a buffer, Makar said that effect falls off well before the acidification does.

The study also shows some ecosystems are much more sensitive than others. A nearby lake could remain relatively healthy if it could buffer lots of acid, but the research suggests sensitive lakes could be affected as far east as Manitoba.

“There’s quite a far-reaching effect hundreds of kilometres downwind for ecosystems that are sensitive,” Makar said.

The paper’s conclusions rest on 2013 measurements. Syncrude and Suncor say they’ve substantially improved their performance since then — Syncrude installed a sulphur scrubber in 2014.

But production increases mean Suncor’s overall oilsands emissions — which also include some other chemicals — increased 20 per cent from 2013 to 2017.

Terry Abel of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers acknowledged sulphur has been an issue in the oilsands “as far back as I can remember.”

Abel said oilsands facilities scrub the vast majority of sulphur from their stacks and he cautioned the study remains a modelling exercise.

“It’s a prediction of what might be happening, not necessarily what is happening.”

Actual field data pointing to rising acid levels in waterways and soils remains inconclusive, Abel suggested.

“There are studies out there that say there are changes. There’s others that say changes are well within natural variability. Direct measurement is inconclusive as to whether there’s any significant change taking place.”

Abel said industry-funded, government-run monitoring programs are in place.

Makar said the paper can’t estimate the rate of acidification.

“This ecosystem is being pushed past its buffering capacity and it will eventually go. I don’t have the when.”

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Lacombe Police Service requests help finding missing person

Melissa Oswell was last seen on May 15th, after walking away from a health facility in Lacombe

Lacombe Composite High School students win gold at Skills Alberta Competition

Camryn Grant and Ben Rainforth will represent Team Alberta at Nationals in Halifax

Lacombe Police joins in on Canada Road Safety Week

1,841 motor vehicle fatalities and 9,960 serious injuries due to motor vehicle collisions in 2017

City of Lacombe council highlights – May 13, 2019

The next scheduled Regular Council Meeting is on May 27th

Social justice at the forefront at Father Lacombe Catholic School

Charity projects highlight Catholic Education Week

VIDEO: LCHS Hair Massacure supports children’s charities

Event supports kids living with cancer

Authorities warn out-of-control wildfire could cut northern Alberta town’s electricity

Alberta Transportation has closed Highway 35 south of High Level due to the fire

‘Rope-a-dope’: Environmentalists say Alberta war room threat won’t distract them

Those against Alberta Premier Jason Kenney aren’t worried about promise to fight critics of energy industry

Almost $13 million to be paid to Grande Prairie hospital subcontractors, others

No reasons for the Court of Queen’s Bench order were released

Canada’s parole officers say correctional system has reached breaking point

About half of Canada’s federal parole officers work inside penitentiaries and correctional institutions

Speed, alcohol considered factors in deadly Calgary crash: police

Two female passengers in the Corolla, aged 31 and 65, died at the scene

Montreal researchers create audible hockey puck for visually impaired players

Three years ago, Gilles Ouellet came up with the idea for a puck that makes a continuous sound

‘What’s your number?’: Advocates urge Canadians to check their blood pressure

May 17 is World Hypertension Day, marked to spread awareness on the risks of high blood pressure

National Impaired Driving Enforcement Day is May 18

Alberta RCMP participates in Canada Road Safety Week during Victoria Day long weekend

Most Read