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The Environmental Impact Statement for Alberta tar sands production ignored a major air pollution pathway, underestimating the damage to the environment.

Syncrude refinery, Alberta Canada, Alberta tarsands
As bad as the air pollution from this refining is, there's another source that makes toxic polycyclic  aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) levels even worse than predicted based on sources like this one.
Canada's tar sands air pollution problems from toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are greater than official government values. A major air emissions source, tailings, was ignored in the EIS. The refining process breaks down the heavy hydrocarbons in tar sands increasing hydrocarbon volatility making waste piles a major source of air pollution according to an open access report published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Our study shows that emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons estimated in environmental impact assessments conducted to approve developments in the Athabasca oil sands region are likely too low. This finding implies that environmental concentrations in exposure-relevant media, such as air, water, and food, estimated using those emissions may also be too low. The potential therefore exists that estimation of future risk to humans and wildlife because of surface mining activity in the Athabasca oil sands region has been underestimated.

Alberta Tar Sands Tailings Waste pond. Note oil slick.
Tar Sands refinery waste ponds, like this tailings pond in Alberta, are major sources of air pollution.
This is a big deal, not only because of the greater damage from tar sands development to people's health and the environment, but also because the regulatory basis for approving expansion of tar sands development was flawed. The PNAS report explained that the authors of the EIS used the wrong methodology to calculate PAH emissions to the air.  
Despite taking into account PAH emissions from stacks, mine vehicles, mine faces, plant fugitives, and tailings areas, the estimated EIA emissions were insufficient to explain contaminant levels measured in the environment. This insufficiency may be because the EIA estimates zero emissions of all PAHs except naphthalene from tailings areas, plant fugitives, and mine faces, an unrealistic estimation considering the oil sands
extraction and upgrading processes. The extraction and upgrading processes, which involve mixing with water at high temperatures in addition to aeration and thermal cracking, should facilitate the transfer of even higher molecular weight PAHs to the gas phase.

These inconsistencies suggest major alteration is required in the methodology used to estimate PAH emissions from different sources in environmental impact assessments, (my bolding) such as that described in ref 42.

Moreover, the evaporation of PAHs from tailings is an additional pathway for long-distance water pollution.
Accounting for evaporative emissions (e.g., from tailings pond disposal) provides a more realistic representation of PAH [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] distribution in the AOSR [Athabasca oil sands region]. Such indirect emissions to air were found to be a greater contributor of PAHs to the AOSR atmosphere relative to reported direct emissions to air. The indirect pathway transporting uncontrolled releases of PAHs to aquatic systems via the atmosphere may be as significant a contributor of PAHs to aquatic systems as other supply pathways.
This report casts a shadow of doubt on the recent U.S. Department of State EIS determination that Keystone XL would have minimal environmental impact.
Simon Dyer, director of Alberta and the north for the Pembina Institute, said the study raises a number of issues.

“Decision-makers need to (consider) this information in determining if it is appropriate to approve new projects,” he said. “Regulatory submissions already show that planned production will exceed legal limits for pollutants which means approvals must be slowed or better technologies implemented.”

Originally posted to DK GreenRoots on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 11:11 AM PST.

Also republished by Climate Change SOS.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Here's a report on the petcoke problem (9+ / 0-)
    Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands

    Petcoke is like coal, but dirtier.
    Petcoke looks and acts like coal, but it has even higher carbon emissions than already carbon-intensive coal.

        On a per-unit of energy basis petcoke emits 5 to 10 percent more carbon dioxide than coal.
        A ton of petcoke yields on average 53.6 percent more CO2 than a ton of coal.
        The proven tar sands reserves of Canada will yield roughly 5 billion tons of petcoke – enough to fully fuel 111 U.S. coal plants to 2050.
        Because it is considered a refinery byproduct, petcoke emissions are not included in most assessments of the climate impact of tar sands or conventional oil production and consumption. Thus the climate impact of oil production is being consistently undercounted.

    Petcoke in the tar sands is turning American refineries into coal factories.

        There is 24 percent more CO2 embedded in a barrel of tar sands bitumen than in a barrel of light oil.
        15 to 30 percent of a barrel of tar sands bitumen can end up as petcoke, depending on the upgrading and refining process used.
        Of 134 operating U.S. refineries in 2012, 59 are equipped to produce petcoke.
        U.S. refineries produced over 61.5 million tons of petcoke in 2011 – enough to fuel 50 average U.S. coal plants each year.
        In 2011, over 60 percent of U.S petcoke production was exported.

    Keystone XL will fuel five coal plants and thus emit 13% more CO2 than the U.S. State Department has previously considered.

        Nine of the refineries close to the southern terminus of Keystone XL have nearly 30 percent of U.S. petcoke production capacity, over 50,000 tons a day.
        The petcoke produced from the Keystone XL pipeline would fuel 5 coal plants and produce 16.6 million metric tons of CO2 each year.
        These petcoke emissions have been excluded from State Department emissions estimates for the Keystone XL pipeline.
        Including these emissions raises the total annual emissions of the pipeline by 13% above the State Department’s calculations.

    •  Much more petcoke from tar sands dilbit (6+ / 0-)

      than from conventional oil.

      Conventional light crude has a far lower carbon impact than syncrude from tar sands because syncrude produces far more petcoke in refining.

      look for my eSci diary series Thursday evening.

      by FishOutofWater on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 11:34:42 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I don't think there is any petcoke from WTI or (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        cotterperson, crose

        Bakken oil. These can be refined without having to have a coker unit.

        Petcoke can be converted to clean burning gas. The problem in the US is that energy is so fucking cheap, there are few incentives to clean it up. Prices of energy consumption need to double in the US to match world pricing.

         Converting petcoke would not pay at under $5 for natural gas. India's price will be double that for 2014 so India is using American technology to clean up their petcoke.

        Phillips 66’s E-Gas™ technology selected for Reliance Industries’ gasification project

        Phillips 66 today announced that Reliance Industries Limited, India's largest private sector enterprise, has selected Phillips 66’s  E-Gas™ Technology for its planned gasification plants at Jamnagar.

        Reliance's Jamnagar site is the largest refining complex in the world, with an aggregate refining capacity of 1.3 million barrels of oil per day. The planned gasification plants at Jamnagar will be among the largest in the world and will process petroleum coke and coal into synthesis gas utilizing the E-Gas™ Technology. The synthesis gas will be used as feedstock for a new chemical complex and will fuel the refinery's existing gas turbine power generation units.

        “We look forward to this opportunity to work with Reliance on the largest gasification project in the world,” said Rex Bennett, President, Specialties and Business Development at Phillips 66. “Our E-Gas™ Technology will be used to turn petcoke and coal into clean, reliable energy for Reliance’s refinery and petrochemical plant operations.”

        Phillips 66 will license its E-Gas™ Technology to Reliance and provide process engineering design and technical support relating to the gasification technology process area.

        •  8 pictures Petcoke- storage piles Detroit, Chicago (0+ / 0-)

          "...stories of past courage can define that ingredient..... But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul." JFK Profiles in Courage "

          by ontario on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 07:14:12 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  Those piles of petcoke are from tar sands crude. (0+ / 0-)

            There have been coking refineries on the Pacific coast for decades due to the heavy oils found there. Many Gulf refineries also did coking for decades in order to process the heavy Venezuelan, Mexican and Saudi imported crude.

            Coking is not something new to the US.

            A Black Mound of Canadian Oil Waste Is Rising Over Detroit
            May 17, 2013
            The coke comes from a refinery alongside the river owned by Marathon Petroleum, which has been there since 1930. But it began refining exports from the Canadian oil sands — and producing the waste that is sold to Koch — only in November.
            The plants on the coast, like the coking refineries concentrated in California to deal with that state’s heavy crude oil, are positioned to ship the waste to China or Mexico, where it is burned as a fuel. California exports about 128,000 barrels of petroleum coke a day, mainly to China.
            Much of the new coking investment has gone into refineries in the Midwest to allow them to take advantage of the oil sands. BP, the British energy company, is building what it describes as the second-largest coke refinery in Whiting, Ind. When completed, the unit will be able to process about 102,000 barrels of bitumen or other heavy oils a day.
            •  That is what I understood, the Detroit piles (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              Claudius Bombarnac

              are from the Alberta oilsands. I assume it Keystone is built, we would see similar on the Gulf?

              "...stories of past courage can define that ingredient..... But they cannot supply courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul." JFK Profiles in Courage "

              by ontario on Wed Feb 05, 2014 at 05:34:00 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  They've been producing millions of tons of (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                petcoke per year on the Gulf for over 50 years so it's nothing new. Venezuelan, Mexican and Saudi crude all contribute to it's production. Venezuelan is very similar to the Canadian heavy crude. The Canadian heavy oils are basically replacing these.

                Most of it is handled by Kinder Morgan, Pacific Gulf Shipping Co and Koch Carbon LLC who ship it all around the world. It is used to make cement, anodes for aluminum production and as a replacement for steam coal.

                Petcoke is only new to refineries in the Midwest. As petcoke markets are global, they are better suited to be produced on major shipping centers.

                A solution to the problem would be gasification. There are new plants springing up all around the country.

                Gasification Technology

                Gasification Process Flow

                Several processes are combined to produce methanol and hydrogen from petcoke. Essentially, the gasification process flow is as follows:

                Did You Know?

                About 70 percent of Gulf Coast petcoke is exported – sometimes just across the border – and often burned without environmental controls. The LCCE plant will protect the environment by using advanced gasification technology to avoid harmful emissions while extracting energy from petcoke.

  •  Dang, I'm glad you posted on this! (5+ / 0-)

    I'd just read the abstract online thanks to a report at Think Progress. Just posted this snip from the abstract in anther diary:

    Accounting for evaporative emissions (e.g., from tailings pond disposal) provides a more realistic representation of PAH [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons] distribution in the AOSR [Athabasca oil sands region]. Such indirect emissions to air were found to be a greater contributor of PAHs to the AOSR atmosphere relative to reported direct emissions to air. The indirect pathway transporting uncontrolled releases of PAHs to aquatic systems via the atmosphere may be as significant a contributor of PAHs to aquatic systems as other supply pathways.
    Air, water, Earth's atmosphere -- We need them all if we plan to continue living here!

    "Let each unique song be sung and the spell of differentiation be broken" - Winter Rabbit

    by cotterperson on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 11:36:23 AM PST

  •  And NAS are not DFH so GOP can't just LIE about (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, FishOutofWater, crose

    this one!

  •  I ran into this article when I tried (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, Claudius Bombarnac

    to understand what the tarsands chemically consists of.

    Extracting Oil and Tar from Sand from Penn State Univ. in PA.

    They discuss the tailing ponds in there:

    ...Extraction and separation of bitumen from surface-mined oil sands for the purpose of processing to fuels is much more expensive than extracting conventional oil by drilling and involves the use of significant amounts of energy and water. The water used in the process is ultimately stored in vast tailing ponds. It is a complex mixture of water, dissolved salts, minerals, residual bitumen, surfactants released from the bitumen and other materials used in processing and is acutely toxic to aquatic life. The environmental problems associated with extracting oil from tar sands are now a source of considerable concern. Some of these problems and the need for large quantities of water have prevented the exploitation of the Utah deposits (along with the higher viscosity of the bitumen and consolidated nature of the tar sands).
    But then they suggest a solution to the problem:
    In work completed in the last 18 months at Penn State, it has been shown that certain ionic liquids, ILs, can be used to separate bitumen from tar or oil sands and oil from beach contaminated sand.
    It's too much to post here, but the two video's from this site give a picture of what they think could be done.

    I can't even judge this. Sounds too good to be true, but may be it's something to consider? Just was thinking about it, triggered by your diary, which is great BTW.

    There is also the second video on this link, but I can't figure out from when that is.

    Waterless oil sands extraction

    May be you have a look at it to tell us what's it worth?

  •  slightly sideways (3+ / 0-) has released information regarding a 2009 Transcanadian pipe explosion investigation - that was "lost" in a bureaucratic kerfuffle....  YOU BETCHA!

    •  Exploding pipelines are a common occurrence (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      FishOutofWater, Eyesbright

      in the US. There have been thousands since they were first built a century ago.

      List of pipeline accidents in the United States in the 21st century

    •  Canadian censorship of environmental scientists (0+ / 0-)

      Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's censorship of Canadian scientists and scientific research, especially anything regarding tar sands, is unprecedented and scary.  I wish it were getting more public notice here (and in Canada).

      It began badly enough in 2008 when scientists working for Environment Canada, the federal agency, were told to refer all queries to departmental communications officers.
      Now the government is doing all it can to monitor and restrict the flow of scientific information, especially concerning research into climate change, fisheries and anything to do with the Alberta tar sands — source of the diluted bitumen that would flow through the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Journalists find themselves unable to reach government scientists; the scientists themselves have organized public protests.

      They don't win until we quit fighting!

      by Eyesbright on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 07:51:41 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Sheesh. Something ELSE SEIS missed in this... (4+ / 0-) that took so long to prepare. Thanks, FOoW.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Tue Feb 04, 2014 at 01:26:06 PM PST

  •  Note....PAH emissions from either mine faces (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    or from process wastewater impoundments depend on temperature and surface exposure.   As a result, PAH emissions cannot be assumed to be constant all year around as there will be virtually no PAH emissions from frozen and snow-covered wastewater storage units and mine faces during substantial portions of the year in Northern Alberta.

  •  If it's not already clear (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The EIS to which the diarist refers in the second non-blockquoted paragraph is not the SEIS released last week, but (I presume) the EIS or Canadian EIS-equivalent process that occurred when expansion of bitumen extraction in Alberta was proposed.

    The SEIS has very little information on extraction impacts, probably because they excluded that from consideration by basing the analysis on an (arguably questionable) assumption that the bitumen extraction would occur no matter what, and consequently is not an impact associated with the Keystone XL pipeline.

    Based on adverse public comment on the earlier draft of the EIS a discussion of "extraterritorial concerns" is provided in Section 4.15 of the SEIS (specifically, Section, starting on page 104 of the pdf) and is, to be gentle, superficial. It presents the following:

    1. Summary of governmental and non-governmental oversight of bitumen extraction

    2. Very general overview statements and statistics on monitoring data to date associated with extraction

    3.  A general summary of migratory bird protection in Canada

    4.  A couple of paragraphs qualitatively addressing impacts on birds

    5.  A general discussion of boreal forest reclamation

    6.  A description of effects on aboriginal groups

    7.  A superficial, qualitative closing summary of oil sand extraction impacts

    That's it. Granted, the SEIS does nod toward PAH findings reported in 2013 by Kurek et al. regarding increased PAH concentrations in lake sediment, but there's essentially no real discussion of contamination by hazardous substances (including PAHs, lighter hydrocarbons, dioxins, or metals) in soil, sediment, surface water, or groundwater associated with bitumen extraction. Moreover, there is no discussion about depletion of water resources or destruction of muskeg or peat bog groundwater/surface water resources/ecosystems.

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