A study by the Alberta Research Council that investigated the plume of contaminants emanating from a Canadian oil refinery using high-tech sniffing equipment found the facility dramatically underestimated its releases of dangerous air pollutants.The refinery, which wasn’t identified but is believed to be in Alberta, released 19 times more cancer-causing benzene than it reported under Environment Canada disclosure regulations, about 15 times more smog-causing volatile organic compounds, and nine times more methane, a greenhouse gas, according to the study.The testing is believed to be the first at a North American refinery using the sophisticated technology relying on lasers, and is considered state-of-the art. The technology, developed by British Petroleum, has been in widespread use in Europe for nearly two decades.
Serious stuff, this. As the report points out, this is old news, here’s a workshop report from the EPA last year about this very issue (no, don’t read it, 303 pages long). Volatile organic compounds are inputs into air pollution models that measure ozone levels. When your local agency tells you that Tuesday is going to be a code orange ozone day, they rely on ozone models such as CMAQ. Now, without proper inputs, you are going to make some serious errors in prediction. These errors are somewhat mitigated by the tuning of these models with measured concentrations. So, there is some error compensation going on within the model.
More importantly, by underestimating fugitive emissions, refineries can reduce their leak monitoring, reporting and mitigation costs. There is also the issue of conflict of interest here. The current technique was developed by the American Petroleum Institute!
Do we expect measurement based techniques to start being used in the US and Canada? One would hope so, but, don’t hold your breath!