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

Surrey Community Leader Awards winners revealed

The 16th CLA awards, presented by the Now-Leader, recognized Surrey’s un-sung heroes

COMMUTER ALERT: Serious pedestrian crash closes Pacific Highway

Traffic along 176th Street, 4th to 8th Avenue, is blocked while Mounties continue to investigate.

MPs meet with Surrey council to discuss RCMP, LRT

Federal government to have quarterly meetings with Surrey

Hogg curious if a new recreation centre is needed in Grandview Heights

South Surrey-White Rock MP to host a Town Hall Meeting tonight

Surrey building that has gathered dust for 20 years is for sale again, with bids sought

Potential sale of the long-vacant 104 Avenue Centre is good news, Surrey Board of Trade CEO says

People flocking to Vancouver Island city to see hundreds of sea lions

Each year the combination of Steller and California sea lions take over Cowichan Bay

Protesters confront Environment Minister in B.C.

Protesters wanting more for killer whales confront Catherine McKenna

Humans reshaping evolutionary history of species around the globe: paper

University of British Columbia researcher had the paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society

Toronto ‘carding’ activist Desmond Cole stopped by police in Vancouver

Cole says his experience reveals what daily life is like for black and Indigenous residents

Tubing, skating, light display part of new winter festival in Vancouver

Set to open Nov. 23, the six-week festival will take over Vancouver’s Concord Pacific Centre

Commercial trucks banned from left lane of Coquihalla

B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation has introduced a new program that hopes to prevent accidents and closures on the Coquihalla Highway.

B.C. on track to record same number of overdose deaths as last year

128 people died of overdoses in September, bringing the total to more than 1,100 so far in 2018

B.C. firefighters rescue horse stuck in mud

‘It happens more often than you’d think,’ says deputy chief

Regulatory confusion over ‘toxic’ stink near Abbotsford school

Officials sniffing out which regulators responsible for enforcing compliance at neighbouring property

Most Read