An ongoing lack of federal regulation means Canadian oil refineries have released and continue to release far greater amounts of toxic emissions than their U.S. counterparts, an investigation by the Toronto Star, Global News, and National Observer has revealed.
In 2014, Observer reports, the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia “emitted 10 times more fine particulate matter, seven times more carbon monoxide, and 49 times more sulphur dioxide” than the comparable Marathon Petroleum facility in Detroit.
Overall, “Canada’s tiny fleet of 15 refineries emitted 62% more sulphur dioxide (SO2) than 127 U.S. plants combined in 2014,” and 11 of the 15 “would need to cut nitrogen oxides emissions by at least half to reach the U.S. average.”
The shocking disparities, Observer writes, owe to Ottawa’s failure to police pollution: “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.”
And 17 years after federal, provincial, and industry officials agreed to align Canadian standards with U.S. benchmarks, there’s still no federal cap for key pollutants.
Canadian Fuels Association President and CEO Peter Boag put responsibility for the delay on government. While he acknowledged that U.S. plants have outperformed Canadian refineries in tackling emissions, he maintained that all his association’s members are “in full compliance with their annual emissions caps established by the relevant regulatory authority.”
While Imperial Oil officials declined to be interviewed, the company provided a written statement to the National Observer which declared itself “in compliance with government emissions regulations” and asserted efforts to “strive for continuous improvement.”
Environment Canada spokesperson Mark Johnson industry representatives have “acknowledged the need to address the gap, and have expressed a willingness to work together to ensure that measures that are developed are appropriate to address the risks to Canadians.”
But earnest expressions of willingness have been around a long time, Observer reports: in 2001, when the idea to develop annual facility-wide emissions tests for a wide range of refinery pollutants was first floated, and again a decade later, when a second working group tackled the question.
On the second round, the motivating question was “what’s the minimum everyone should be meeting?” said Ken Smith, a chemical engineer formerly with Environment Canada and Ontario’s environment ministry.
For industry, recalled Boag, any minimum needed to acknowledge “the investment required to lower emissions” and the need to preserve the “competitiveness of the Canadian refining sector”.
EcoJustice environmental engineer Elaine MacDonald said such instincts for self-preservation make clear the need for direction and leadership from the top.
“Consensus is a ridiculous concept when it comes to having to protect human health and the environment and pass regulations,” she said. “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.”
To regain control, the feds should look to the U.S., Smith said, noting that “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 sulphur dioxide emissions, along with reductions in volatile organic compounds and particulate matter emissions.”
Such measures, while also include forcing companies “to collectively invest US$7 billion in ‘control technologies’ and pay penalties of more than US$116 million”, have paid off, reports Observer, with nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide emissions dropping by about 75% since 2000.
“The technology is there. We can get reductions in these emissions,” Smith said. What’s needed is “a regulatory driver that pushes us in that direction.”
A spokesperson for Environment and Climate Minister Catherine McKenna said the 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.”
But “when asked whether widespread emissions caps or minimum requirements are still under consideration,” Observer notes, ”federal government officials did not respond.”