Air pollution from oil sands

There are several different types of air pollution that arise as a result of oil sands bitumen extraction. In addition to the greenhouse gases released by the bitumen extraction process in the oil sands - primarily CO2 (see climate impacts of oil sands for more information) - other pollutants are released during oil sands mining operations.

As is the case with the development of other fossil fuels, emissions are released that include nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), volatile organic compounds, and particulate matter.[1] Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are particularly harmful as they contribute to the formation of acid rain. In 2013, the annual emissions from oil sands operations alone were about 46 800 tonnes of nitrogen oxides, about 99 500 tonnes of sulfur dioxide, and about 29 000 tonnes of volatile organic compounds.[2]

Additionally, one concern about the air pollution associated with oil sands development is that the contribution to air pollution is significantly larger than that of conventional oil. Producing a barrel of synthetic crude oil from bitumen creates more than twice as much nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides than a barrel of conventional oil.[1] Surface mining operations are larger contributors to air pollution than in situ development, although both methods release harmful by-products.


Recently, there have been improvements in reducing the volumes of these pollutants that are produced, but the industry continues to grow and thus air pollution remains an issue. Although air quality remains an issue in the oil sands region, the air quality around that area is monitored continually. The air quality is monitored at 15 different sites, as well as a portable monitoring station that can be deployed to send to air pollution "hot spots" when required. Routinely monitored substances include particulate matter, ozone, oxides of nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, total reduced sulfur, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. This monitoring shows that the annual average concentrations of SOx and CO are decreasing, while NOx emissions are increasing.[3] This effort to monitor air quality is done in hopes to aid in reducing the pollutants over time.

Interactive Graph

For an interactive graph showing what pollutants arise from oil sands industry click here.

The category that contains the oil sands extraction pollutants is upstream oil industry, as this portion includes the extraction of this bitumen. By comparing the provinces, it can be seen for some pollutants that upstream oil industry in Alberta contributes more than other provinces. This is partially a result of the oil sands extraction. The pollutant being looked at is automatically set to sulfur oxides, but try changing the pollutant to nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, or carbon monoxide!


  1. 1.0 1.1 Pembina Institute. (June 19, 2015). Air Pollution [Online]. Available:
  2. Environment Canada. (July 29, 2015). National Pollutant Release Inventory - 2013 [Online]. Available:
  3. Alberta Government. (July 29, 2015). Alberta's Oil Sands Air [Online]. Available:

Authors and Editors

Jordan Hanania, Kailyn Stenhouse, Jason Donev
Last updated: August 29, 2017
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