Acid rain could hit Western Canada

Ottawa, Canada - A huge increase in industrial and energy production in Western Canada could lead to an acid rain problem similar to the one that hit Eastern Canada in the 1980s, according to federal documents prepared for Environment Minister Rona Ambrose.

The report warns that a sharp increase in sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions – the largest contributors to acid rain - are expected in the West as ”Canada’s largest and fastest growing GHG (greenhouse gas) emitting sectors,” including Alberta’s energy sector, continue to expand, reports CanWest News Service, which obtained the documents.

According to Environment Canada, there is a lack of evidence on the effect of acid rain in Western Canada, but historically lower levels of industrialization and natural factors such as weather and alkali soils have preserved the region thus far.

However, research suggests that “there is … growing concern about the potential for acid rain impacts in Western Canada due to expected increases in acidifying emissions from industrial sources,” reports CanWest. The largest sources of such pollutants are concentrated in oil sands and electricity generation sectors of Alberta, as fossil fuel consumption continues to rise.

Acid rain became a national issue during the 1980s when industrial pollution from Eastern Canada and the United States led to severe environmental degradation in Eastern provinces. Then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and former U.S. President George Bush Sr. signed the Canada-U.S. Air Quality Agreement (AQA), agreeing to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions by 40 per cent by 2010.

New research suggests that commitments of 75 percent beyond those levels are necessary to stabilize certain ecosystems, including many areas of the Canadian Precambrian Shield (which spans Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) which are more vulnerable due to a lack of alkali soil to neutralize acid rain. Acid deposition still threatens biodiversity and ecological production in many areas, says Environment Canada.

Under the Canada-Wide Acid Rain Strategy for Post-2000, Environment Canada hopes to decrease sulphur dioxide levels to below the ‘critical load’ which the ecosystem can safely absorb, but notes that “without further controls, almost 800,000 km2 in south-eastern Canada would receive harmful levels of acid rain - levels well above critical load limits for aquatic systems.”

Sulphur dioxide emissions in Canada come largely (68%) from industrial sources, while electric utilities account for 27 percent. In the United States, electric utilities account for 67 percent of emissions, while fuel combustion and industrial sources account for 19 percent and 9 percent respectively.

Oil sands production in Alberta is expected to triple in the next decade, according to industry projections, meaning the high sulphur dioxide emissions that come from refining the heavy bitumen will also increase. New technologies are able to cut emissions, costs prevent full scale utilization, and sulphur dioxide emissions per barrel of output have remained relatively steady since 2000, says the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Alberta recently introduced regulations that will force industrial facilities to reduce emissions, calling them the strictest in the country. These will include reductions for sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide in the electricity sector.

The need to reduce sulphur dioxide emissions from oil sands production and other sectors certainly provides an opportunity for Canadian technology producers. A cost-effective method of reduction would be immediately attractive to numerous energy producers and the availability of research and development and investment capital that the oil sands provide make it a perfect testing ground for new products that can enter the international marketplace for oil producers.

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