Pollution from canadian refineries an ‘embarrassment’ compared to u.s. national observer 4 gases in the atmosphere besides oxygen and nitrogen

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Those findings, based on 2014 data from the Canadian and U.S. governments, analyzed and published for the first time in a Toronto Star/ Global News/ National Observer investigation, are part of a national trend showing Canadian refineries pump out far higher levels of some key pollutants compared against their U.S. counterparts.

Carolyn Jarvis from Global News reports the findings of a joint investigation, in collaboration with the Toronto Star and National Observer, into pollution spewed from Canada’s refineries. Global News video Average Canadian refinery produced less oil, but much more pollution

• Canada’s tiny fleet of 15 refineries emitted 62 per cent more sulphur dioxide (SO2) than 127 U.S. plants combined in 2014. Fourteen out of 15 refineries in Canada would have to cut their sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions by at least half to meet the average level of emissions in the U.S., the data shows. Of those, nine of them would need a reduction of 90 per cent or more to reach the U.S. average. Exposure to SO2 can harm the respiratory system and make breathing difficult, especially for those with asthma.

“It’s almost mind boggling when you look at these numbers,” said Elaine MacDonald, an environmental engineer with the non-profit EcoJustice. “It would be quite an embarrassment to Canada for this data to be made public because it does show how far behind we are compared to the U.S.” Elaine MacDonald, an environmental engineer with EcoJustice, says the different numbers from Canadian and U.S. refineries are "mind-boggling." Photo by Chris Dunsieth, Global News

While federal oversight in the U.S. imposes a strict regulatory regime that includes stiff penalties for oil companies, Canadian refineries are managed under a patchwork of provincial and municipal air regulations. There remains no federal ‘cap’ for key pollutants — the result of years of “impasse” between oil companies, non-governmental organizations and government on how to address the emissions imbalance with the U.S.

Peter Boag, president and CEO of the Canadian Fuels Association, which represents the country’s refining industry, said all of his members are “in full compliance with their annual emission caps established by the relevant regulatory authority.”

Sulphur dioxide emissions at the Sarnia refinery have dropped 60 per cent in the past 15 years, benzene emissions have fallen 88 per cent in 25 years and fine particulate matter has been cut by a quarter over the past decade, the statement reads.

“It is important to note the challenge with comparing refinery emissions on the basis of facility size, as sites may have vastly different processing schemes, run vastly different crudes, and produce vastly different types of products to meet regional demand for refined petroleum products,” it reads. Peter Boag, president of the Canadian Fuels Association, poses for a picture in his Ottawa office on April 12, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault Burnaby plant produced less oil, but nine times more pollution than nearby Washington refinery

The same year, the Parkland Burnaby Refinery in B.C. (then owned by Chevron) gushed nine times as much sulphur dioxide as the ConocoPhillips plant an hour’s drive away in Washington state — even though it processed only 53 per cent as much oil.

“Our current operations meet SO2 emission standards and we continue to improve our performance under the direction of our air regulator, Metro Vancouver,” wrote Parkland spokesperson Leroy McKinnon in a written statement. “Metro Vancouver applies SO2 regulations that are more stringent than federal and provincial requirements.”

“Anybody with any sort of constrictive lung disease, such as asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), is going to respond to that SO2 and it might cause an exacerbation of their disease.” Sarah Henderson, a senior scientist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says high SO2 levels in the air can have health implications. Photo by Ben Jonah, Global News

“It’s something that I deal with on a weekly basis.” Retired NHL hockey player Jason Simon, from the Aamjiwnaang Nation in Ontario says he experiences the effects of pollution from Sarnia refineries. Photo by Troy Shantz, Global News Push to close emissions gap goes back to meetings in 2001

The push to close Canada’s emission gap with the U.S. dates back to meetings between lawmakers and industry in 2001. Federal and provincial partners, industry and non-governmental organizations came together to develop “annual facility-wide emissions caps for a wide range of air pollutants from Canadian refineries.”

“Consensus is a ridiculous concept when it comes to having to protect human health and the environment and pass regulations,” said EcoJustice’s MacDonald, who suggests the federal government should have stepped in. “You’re never going to get industry to agree to being regulated and being forced to reduce their emissions… The federal government dropped the ball.”

Canadian industry spokesperson Boag says a key challenge for reaching emissions parity with the U.S. is the investment required to lower emissions. A “key condition” in reaching lower targets, he said, was preserving the “competitiveness of the Canadian refining sector.”

“I am confident that gap that may now exist today, over the next…number of years will be closing, not only in the case of Sarnia and Ontario, but in other jurisdictions as well.” Peter Boag, president of the Canadian Fuels Association, speaks to Mike De Souza from National Observer and Kurt Brownridge from Global News in Ottawa on April 12, 2018. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Since 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has entered into 37 agreements with U.S. refinery companies covering 112 plants. Those “settlements” require the companies to make “significant” reductions in nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide emissions along with reductions in volatile organic compounds and particulate matter emissions.

Her spokesperson, Caroline Theriault, provided a written statement that reads: “Following a decade of inaction under the previous government, our government is taking action to finalize new national regulations to reduce emissions of air pollutants that are harmful to human health and that contribute to smog from the petroleum and petrochemical sectors – including refineries.” Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna speaks at an event in Ottawa on April 25, 2018. File photo by Alex Tétreault

The Canadian government has recently introduced draft regulations for one group of pollutants, volatile organic compounds, which is expected to reduce refinery emissions when brought into force. But when asked whether widespread emissions caps or minimum requirements are still under consideration, federal government officials did not respond.

If the refinery pollution was curbed and ambient air improved, “there would be a little bit less heart disease in the population, a little bit less asthma in children and adults, a little bit less cancer of all types,” said environmental health scientist Henderson.