Washington, D.C. – Alberta’s oil sands are creating as much pollution as a large power plant, with some emissions similar to that of a medium-size city, according to a new report by Environment Canada.

About 1.8 million barrels of oil were produced from bitumen in the oil sands in 2010, with production of those fossil fuels requiring the burning of more fossil fuels.

Scientists used satellites to measure nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) in an area 30 kilometres by 50 kilometres around the mines, and found elevated levels of the pollutants.

“For both gasses, the levels are comparable to what satellites see over a large power plant, or for nitrogen dioxide, comparable to what they see over some medium-sized cities,” said Chris McLinden, a research scientist with Environment Canada. “It stands out above what’s around it, out in the wilderness, but one thing we wanted to try to do was put it in context.”

McLinden said that the independent report on the airborne pollutant levels, which can lead to acid rain in high enough concentrations, is part of Environment Canada’s efforts to monitor the environmental impact of the surface mines. While some land- and airplane-based measurements have been taken at particular points by other researchers, no one had calculated the overall extent of the oil sands’ air quality, including the equipment and refining facilities needed for extraction and processing.

The measurements were taken by satellites that detect sunlight that passes through the atmosphere and is reflected back up to space. Based on the patterns of reflected wavelengths, scientists can calculate the concentration of certain gasses, in particular NO2 and SO2. McLinden said it is a relatively new way to study pollution over small areas.

When the scientists looked at concentrations over the years from older satellite information, they found that NO2 amounts increased about 10 per cent each year between 2005 and 2010, keeping pace with the growth of the oil sands industry.

The report was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a publication of the American Geophysical Union.

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