Oil sands development is associated with the production of greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulphur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), ozone and fine particulate matter.
The oil sands region is Alberta's most heavily monitored region for air quality. Air quality in the oil sands region is managed through a strong regulatory approval process, air monitoring stations and the use of best available technology. Industry is held accountable through ambient air quality objectives.
Monitoring air qualityAir quality in the oil sands region is monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year across the region by the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association – a collaboration of communities, environmental groups, industry, government and Aboriginal stakeholders.
The region has a network of continuous air monitoring stations at 15 sites, which is expected to expand. Industry operates 70 passive industrial monitoring sites in the area, to increase as industry grows. The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association also has a portable monitoring station that can be deployed for medium-term monitoring and a mobile station to send to "hot spots" when required.
Routinely monitored substances within the oil sands region include particulate matter, ozone, oxides of nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, total reduced sulphur, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.
The Government of Alberta regularly audits monitoring stations and data throughout the region for accuracy.
The Government of Alberta responds to every air quality complaint it receives.
Annual average concentrations of sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide are decreasing in Fort McMurray. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide are increasing, while ozone shows no clear trend. This indicates that while Fort McMurray is growing, air quality is not being substantially affected.
Alberta has an hourly air quality objective for hydrogen sulphide (H2S) that allows us to detect and address H2S exceedences.
The Government of Alberta holds facility operators accountable for finding the root cause of H2S exceedences and the best way to mitigate them. The majority of exceedences have occurred near specific facilities and away from populated areas.
Substantial efforts are being undertaken to monitor air quality near industrial sources, in local communities and downwind of oil sands industrial activities. The Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring builds on the foundation of routine monitoring. This plan aims to fill knowledge gaps about the content, source, fate and impact of emissions.
The Air Quality Health Index is available for five communities in the oil sands region, and it indicates 'low risk"'air quality more than 95 per cent of the time.
Managing Air Quality
The Government of Alberta has established Ambient Air Quality Objectives as indicators of air quality. These objectives are used to assess compliance near major industrial air emission sources, including those around the oil sands region.
Industry has invested heavily in emissions abatement technology to ensure that regional air quality remains within regulated limits.
The government holds industry accountable for emissions through regulations and approvals. Environmental Protection Orders may be issued in instances of noncompliance, which require industry to solve air quality issues.