Bitumen in the Peace River region of Alberta is no more odorous than oilsands in other parts of the province, though the extraction methods that involve heating could be responsible for the overabundant complaints about air quality in the region, according to researchers.
A recent study by the Alberta Geological Survey (AGS), which looked into the geology and chemistry of the petroleum at four specific sites in the Peace River region, found no evidence that location has anything to do with the odours complained about by residents.
“No trend is observed to indicate that oils from the Peace River Oilsands area emit greater reduced sulphur compounds (RSCs) or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than those in other oilsands areas,” the report states.
The investigation was launched in response to recommendations made last year during a public review into complaints around emissions and odours in the Peace River region.
Landowners near oilsands facilities, which are scattered throughout the region, have complained for years of headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, respiratory problems and other health impacts that they attribute to emissions from nearby oil tanks. Several households have since relocated, abandoning their farmland, due to health concerns related to possible emissions.
The Peace River oilsands area differs from the Athabasca region in that the bitumen deposits are unable to be mined through conventional processes. Instead, much of the Peace River oil is extracted through Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand (CHOPS), a process that pumps thick bitumen out of the ground similar to how a grain elevator uses an auger.
Once at the surface, the oil must be heated to 70-80 degrees in 1,000-barrel capacity tanks to allow the sand to sink down. The bitumen is then transferred by truck to the main plant for further refinement.
While there is nothing in terms of geology or chemistry that points to the four Peace River oilsands sites as being more odorous than other areas, geologists say the heating process could be a factor in the strong odours surrounding residents say they’ve experienced.
“The conclusion was that the increased odours and emissions from these compounds is more related to the depth and type of oil and the heating of the oil as opposed to any of those specific locations,” said Shar Anderson, a geologist with AGS and one of the authors of the study.
Anderson said bitumen is heavier than oil located deep underground and has been exposed to environmental factors that are causing it to biodegrade.
While a small amount of bitumen was taken from the Athabasca and Cold Lake oilsands areas, Anderson said the sample set wasn’t large enough to make any comparisons between oil in the Peace River area as a whole to deposits elsewhere in the province.
But with this new data available to the public, she said other researchers can continue on with the work to assess variations in odour and emissions across the province.
“This study is one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “There really wasn’t any geochemical data with respect to RCSs and VOCs, so we’ve added that data and made it public…It’s a stepping stone.”
New regulations around gas emissions
The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) established new regulations around gas venting from the oil tanks as a result of last year’s investigation into odours and emissions in the Peace River area.
As of August 2014, a key new directive requires all Peace River heavy oil and bitumen operators to capture and either flare, incinerate or conserve all solution gas from their tanks.
“Since these changes came into effect, monitoring stations…have shown that total concentrations of hydrocarbons in the air have decreased and routine venting of solution gas…has been virtually eliminated,” according to an update from AER in July.
That said, an unannounced inspection sweep in June found 16 sites were in noncompliance with the directive. Those sites were operations approved prior to May 2014, when a requirement was made that all new tanks had to be shut in and all gases captured. An investigation is now underway into the noncompliance.
The AER has also developed draft requirements for fugitive emissions inspections, leak repairs and reporting that are expected to be released this fall, along with a report on new technology that can reduce odours and emissions during the trucking and unloading process.
The regulator estimates that 95 per cent of gases will be conserved by September 2018.