The manufacturing sector and the oil and gas industry which powers it have always been significant contributors to air pollutant emissions and greenhouse gases, but advancements in technology and a shift toward more sustainable operating procedures are finally making a difference. As global demand for oil and gas products increases, the industry is making efforts to reduce the environmental impact of the work being done in this sector.
There are four key categories of pollutant emissions generated by oil and gas operations. These are harmful volatile organic compounds, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. All of these compounds are undesirable air pollutants that have adverse effects on the health of people and the environment. This sector is also the largest single source of greenhouse gases in the form of carbon dioxide and methane, contributing to the warming of the planet.
Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are organic chemicals with a very low boiling point which allows them to evaporate into the air at very low temperatures. Many of these are harmless, but some VOCs cause the creation of ground level ozone and particulate matter, which results in smog. This can cause compounding long-term health effects, and in Canada as of 2015, the oil and gas industry contributed 37 percent of the country’s total VOC emissions.
Sulphur oxides are a byproduct of burning coal. They damage air quality and are the cause of many respiratory conditions. In recent years, coal-powered operations have been largely replaced in the oil and gas sector, but emissions data from the Canadian government indicates that it still contributed 22 percent of the country’s total in 2015. 25 percent of the country’s nitrogen oxide emissions were produced in this sector as well, contributing to the creation of acid rain. Finally, it was similarly responsible for 10 percent of the total production of poisonous carbon monoxide.
As of 2016, oil and gas operations were the country’s preeminent source of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing 26 percent to the national total, up from recent years as a result of increased production in the Canadian oil sands. All of these issues have a significant detrimental effect on the health of the environment, and the industry is making great efforts toward reducing its impact in terms of climate change and air pollution, and working toward a more sustainable approach overall.
The oil and gas industry generates VOC emissions during upstream activities such as drilling, exploration, and production, and downstream activities such as refining the product and transporting it. One of the most significant sources of emissions is leaking equipment. Combating this problem is a two-step process that starts with detecting leaks, followed by upgrading equipment where faults are found. Companies are investing in special infrared monitoring components that are capable of detecting VOCs, and specially designed low-emission valves. Methane, a greenhouse gas, often leaks through the same faults as VOCs, which means that reducing VOC emissions in this way will reduce methane emissions likewise.
Between now and 2035, the Canadian government estimates that efforts to reduce these emissions will result in 110 fewer kilotonnes of VOCs and 43 fewer kilotonnes of methane being added to the atmosphere. The predicted benefits of these reductions are immense. It is estimated that 43 fewer people will die as a result of pollution-related health conditions. Those who suffer from respiratory conditions like asthma will have fewer symptoms thanks to improved air quality, and hundreds of millions of dollars in health care benefits are estimated to be saved.
Using infrared monitoring to find leaking equipment in oil dispensaries and other industrial environments will definitely help to reduce methane emissions, but Quebec company GHGSat is doing something similar on a much larger scale. The company has developed a satellite that will orbit the earth more than a dozen times a day and detect carbon dioxide and methane emissions from space. By providing detailed emissions statistics to large-scale industrial operations, GHGSat believes that it will be able to help reduce emissions worldwide. The first step in reducing the quantity of greenhouse gases produced by an operation is being able to monitor them to ensure that reduction efforts can be measured and the company can be confident that it is investing in the right approach.
Carbon capture is one key innovation being employed to reduce the quantity of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. As global demand for energy continues to rise, a major challenge facing industry is finding a way to put less carbon dioxide into the air without having to significantly reduce the rate of production. Carbon capture is a process that enables carbon dioxide to be captured and stored underground rather than being released into the atmosphere where it can add to the greenhouse effect.
In the oil and gas industry, gas containing carbon dioxide is often called sour gas, and the chemical process used to remove it is called sweetening. Once the gas has been sweetened, the carbon dioxide that was removed from it is pressurized until it turns into a liquid and compressed until it is roughly 400 times denser than it was as a gas. It is then pumped deep underground through a pipeline into a layer of porous rock, where it can be stored. Using this process, underground reservoirs become storage facilities for carbon dioxide, reducing the impact it would have on the atmosphere otherwise.
Capturing carbon dioxide before it finds its way into the atmosphere is an important innovation in the fight against climate change, but it’s also the way that the planet has always balanced the release of carbon dioxide to prevent greenhouse effect. All plant life captures carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, but some plants are much better at storing it than others.
Peatlands are wetlands containing partially decayed plant matter, called peat. Wetland soil has very little oxygen, and oxygen is a necessary component in the decomposition of organic matter. This means that when vegetation decomposes in a wetland, it cannot fully degrade. Because it cannot completely decay, it will instead accumulate into a compressed substance called peat, trapping the carbon dioxide that was collected by the plants within it. Peatlands are extremely efficient at capturing and storing carbon. They cover an estimated three percent of the planet’s land surface, while forests cover roughly thirty percent, and yet peatlands store nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as all the world’s forests combined.
In the Canadian oil sands, the oil and gas industry is investing heavily in research on how to properly develop manmade peatlands. Drilling operations are destructive and they can have a significant impact on these types of environmental systems. Peat forming wetlands can take thousands of years to form naturally and for this reason, work is being done now to see if it is possible to accelerate the process.
In 2013, a project began near Fort McMurray, Alberta, to build a manmade peatland. The developer, Suncor Energy, named it Nikanotee Fen, after the Cree word meaning future. Suncor is working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Waterloo to develop this manmade wetland, hoping that in time it will generate peat. They have segmented the area and are planting different types of vegetation in each section in order to find the most efficient configuration. The Nikanotee Fen is already successfully collecting carbon and the developers expect to see it generating peat in the near future.
The Sandhill Fen is another Albertan peatland research project developed by Syncrude. In 2000, the entire area was an open pit mine, yet today it is a burgeoning wetland. Five years after its creation it is beginning to generate millimeters of peat. It’s a slow process, but researchers and developers have faith that it will be a valuable approach in reclaiming some of the natural environmental systems that have been lost to oil sands mining and production.
The oil and gas industry has traditionally been the country’s most significant contributor to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. As the global oil market continues to pull ahead, demand will increase production and the need for sustainable practices and innovative approaches to environmental protection will advance alongside. Oil and gas companies are demonstrating a commitment to developing in a way that is economically beneficial, but still environmentally responsible.
For as long as the world needs oil, there will be companies operating in this space, and the world will be using oil for a long time to come. Innovation will be the key to moving forward cautiously, as responsible stewards for the only home we have.