Emissions from flaring, or burning of natural gas, methane and hydrogen sulphide associated with oil production, have risen in each of the last three years. Photo: Lucas Schifres / Bloomberg

By Jeremy van Loon
17 June 2013

(Bloomberg) – In the farming country of northwest Alberta, heavy oil wells are becoming more common than cattle and combines. Along with money and jobs, the boom has brought smells and fumes that are adding to the greenhouse gas emissions from Canada’s oil sands.

Emissions from flaring, or burning of natural gas, methane and hydrogen sulphide associated with oil production, have risen in each of the last three years as drillers increased activity and the government failed to implement new industry targets.

“There’s no new absolute target to reduce flare or vent emissions,” said James Vaughan, who works at the Alberta Energy Conservation Board’s surveillance branch, in an interview. “The economics for conserving gas just doesn’t seem to be there” because of a decline in natural gas prices.

Flaring by companies including Husky Energy Inc. (HSE) is rising even as the Canadian government touts the country’s efforts to limit emissions to win support for TransCanada Corp. (TRP)’s Keystone XL pipeline. Prime Minister Stephen Harper met his European counterparts last week in Paris and London, appealing for them to stop EU plans to single out Alberta as a source of high-polluting energy.

Environmental groups such as 350.org and the Sierra Club have lobbied President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry crude from Alberta to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries, saying that oil-sands production has a larger climate-change impact. Globally, about 5.3 trillion cubic feet of gas is flared annually, the equivalent of 25 percent of U.S. consumption of the fuel, according to the World Bank.

With bitumen production expected to surge to 6.7 million barrels a day by 2030, flaring and venting will continue to rise without new regulations, said Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the Pembina Institute, a Calgary-based environmental research group and consultancy.

Flaring and vented gas from crude oil and bitumen production increased 66 percent between 2009 and 2011, the most recent figures available, according to ERCB data. The upward trend continued last year, according to preliminary data from the regulator.

Previous declines [pdf] from 1996 to 2009 resulted from the implementation of recommendations from an alliance of non-governmental groups, industry, the public and government, known as the Clean Air Strategic Alliance, helping Alberta achieve the most “comprehensive” enforcement rules to manage flaring globally, according to a 2004 World Bank report.

Emissions from flaring in Nigeria have “negative impacts” on lung function, according to a report [pdf] in the Research Journal of Environmental Earth Sciences published on 8 March 2012. Inhaling vapors associated with heavy-oil production may result in nose and throat irritation, headaches and nausea, Baytex Energy Corp. (BTE), a Calgary-based producer, said on its website.

A 2005 report by the Environmental Rights Action and Climate Justice determined gas flaring in Nigeria’s Bayelsa State likely causes 49 premature deaths and respiratory illnesses in 5,000 children annually. [more]

Alberta’s Oil Sands Raise Flaring Emissions as Rules Lag

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