Air Quality

Performance Overview

  • Continued participation in multi-stakeholder Wood Buffalo Environmental Association; community odour monitoring project initiated
  • $1.6 billion emissions reduction project nears completion for start-up in 2013
  • Upgraded all HVAC units to run on non-ozone depleting refrigerant

Our Commitment

Syncrude is committed to managing and monitoring air emissions to protect the residents and ecological health of the region. Syncrude appreciates that the Wood Buffalo region enjoys good air quality, and we will responsibly manage our operations toward maintaining this in the years ahead.

Regional Air Quality Monitoring

The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) is a multi-stakeholder, not-for-profit, science-based monitoring organization that independently monitors air quality and terrestrial environmental effects in the region. WBEA is headquartered in Fort McMurray and comprises environmental non-government organizations, such as the Pembina Institute, Fort McKay First Nation, Fort McKay Métis Local and Fort McMurray Métis Local, governments, health agencies and industry. The association operates 15 continuous monitoring stations, and 20 passive stations, which measure between three and 10 air quality parameters. Two new stations will come on-line in 2013.

WBEA uses the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) to help people better understand air quality and its connection to human health. The AQHI is reported on a scale from1 to 10 to determine the health risk for the general population and for those with respiratory conditions. The lower the number is, the lower the health risks. WBEA’s website reports the AQHI for five areas within the local region—Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Fort McKay South, Fort McMurray and Anzac.

In 2012, WBEA published a peer-reviewed text entitled Alberta Oil Sands: Energy, Industry and the Environment. The 496-page book includes 19 chapters authoured by international scientists, and provides key results of WBEA’s environmental monitoring between 2008 and 2012. It examines significant indicators of air quality and the state of the terrestrial environment in the regional municipality.

The Fort McKay Berry Focus Group is a partnership between community members of Fort McKay and WBEA’s Terrestrial Environmental Effects Monitoring (TEEM) program.   The program engages community members and Elders in an ongoing berry monitoring study, during which they share their observations and pass on their traditional knowledge of regional berry health to scientists. In 2012, a team – comprised of the Berry Focus Group, WBEA staff and an environmental anthropologist - visited berry patches in the local area, as well as Moose Lake, to assess plant health. Some aspects of air quality in the vicinity of berry patches are being monitored with passive techniques in 2013.  Field trips to assess berry quality and to pick berries for laboratory evaluation will continue throughout 2013.

WBEA has also increased the number of permanent jack pine forest monitoring plots throughout the region and in Saskatchewan to a total of 25. Twenty-two of these plots have towers that measure monthly concentrations of five air pollutants. Six of the plots have 30-meter tall towers that continuously measure meteorology and other variables affecting forest growth. In addition, 25 separate edge plots have been established to detect an early warning of change in key indicators, well before an impact can be measured.

Due to an increase in regional odour complaints in recent years, WBEA has added three specialized odour instruments at the Fort McKay-Bertha Ganter air monitoring station. These include: a pneumatically-focused gas chromatograph (PFGC) which can simultaneously detect odour-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur-containing compounds; a methane/non-methane hydrocarbon analyzer to continuously measure concentrations of hydrocarbons associated with industrial and transportation emission sources; and an electronic “nose” to measure the strength and frequency of odours. These instruments are intended to help better understand odours and assist oil sands operators to address this issue. WBEA has also initiated a Community Odour Monitoring Panel project with volunteer participants from Fort McMurray. The panel members have been selected and trained in odour recognition and tracking. They use a specially designed website to report odours in the community of Fort McMurray.

Air Quality Health Index

Source: Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA). Charts depict the percent of 2012 hourly AQHI values within each of the four risk categories – low, moderate, high and very high – calculated for four local WBEA stations, as well as an Edmonton station. Visit for complete details on pollutants measured by AQHI.

Content AlbertaMap

Regional Air Monitoring Stations

Content MonitoringStations

The Wood Buffalo Environmental Association operates the most extensive ambient air network in Alberta with 15 air monitoring stations and 20 passive stations.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) Emissions

Emissions from Syncrude of sulphur dioxide (SO2) originate mainly from two fluid cokers built in the 1970s as part of our original operations. Emissions from a third coker is routed through a flue-gas desulphurization unit (FGD). Other sources of SO2 include flaring and diverter stacks which are used only during coker unit or plant upsets.

When it is necessary to flare or divert gas, we adhere to regulatory requirements and take every possible action to reduce the duration of each incident. We will also decrease the amount of bitumen feed into the coker in order to minimize emissions. 

Emissions of SO2 were higher in 2012 compared to the previous year due to a two-month maintenance shutdown of the coker connected to our flue-gas desulphurization unit. This is still lower than the previous five-year average and compliant with the regulator's 90-day rolling average limit of 250 tonnes per day.

Sulphur Dioxide Emissions

Our Emissions Reduction Project will continue our decrease in SOemissions to around 60 percent of 2005 levels.

Investigating Flue-Gas Desulphurization Unit Performance

As part of the upgrader expansion in 2006, Syncrude introduced a flue-gas desulphurization (FGD) unit to capture and convert SO2 emissions into ammonium sulphate which is then used to produce fertilizer at an on-site third party facility.

The unit uses a wet process to remove SO2. As a result, a high amount of water vapour travels through the stack. SO2 recovery is excellent, reaching as high as 96 percent. SO2 and other pollutants, such as ammonia, that were unrecovered in the process are emitted in trace amounts through the vapour.

In response to stakeholder concerns regarding the vapour plume, investigations are underway to assess the options for the best technological or process solution to improve the unit's performance and further increase emissions recovery.

flue gas desulphurization unit

The flue-gas desulphurization unit captures and converts sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions into ammonium sulphate, which is then used to produce fertilizer. 

Syncrude Emissions Reduction Project Nears Start-Up

We recognize that local residents expect good air quality. Towards this, we have invested $1.6 billion on emissions abatement technologies which are expected to reduce SO2 emissions to an annual average of less than 100 tonnes per day and particulates by 50 per cent. Facilities will be tied into our two original coker units. We are thoroughly reviewing all aspects of the facility to ensure a smooth start-up and reliable operation.

Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) Emissions

Our primary goals with respect to minimizing NOx emissions are to move the maximum volume of material while consuming the least amount of fuel, and to have engines that continue to reduce emissions per litre of fuel consumed. To achieve these, we focus on fuel quality, engine selection, operating and maintenance practices, and mine plan efficiency.

Other Air Emissions

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can contribute to poor air quality. Sources of VOCs at Syncrude include naphtha losses to our Mildred Lake tailings settling basin and hydrocarbon vapours from storage tanks.

To reduce naphtha losses, wastewater streams are directed through two Naphtha Recovery Units (NRUs), a technology developed by Syncrude in the mid-1980s. We remain within government regulations for naphtha losses and continue to examine how we can improve recovery in the future. Naphtha recovery over the reporting period averaged 85 percent.

A leak detection and repair program has been in place at Syncrude since 1992. As required by our government operating approval, this program was modeled to monitor for leaks according to the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) Code of Practice. The system enables the identification and repair of vapour leaks, which minimizes VOC releases.

Significant efforts are also being made to reduce ambient air exceedences through reliability and stable operations, and less plant upsets. In 2012, there were 200 exceedences reported by air monitoring stations operated by the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association. Of these, 15 were attributable to Syncrude.

WBEA communication protocols inform Syncrude immediately of any ambient air exceedences. This notification triggers a site-wide investigation into any possible Syncrude sources that may be contributing to elevated readings. If one is identified, mitigative procedures are implemented to minimize air quality impacts. A follow-up report is submitted to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development within seven days.

We conduct ongoing maintenance to heating and ventilation systems, air conditioners and cooler units to help prevent the release of ozone-depleting substances (ODS) to the atmosphere. In 2012, we experienced 27 exceedences above regulatory limits. These releases were reported to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, investigated and repairs made to the source units. As of the end of the year, we had completed the upgrade of replacing all HVAC units with those that operate on non-ozone depleting refrigerant, and expect future releases to decrease accordingly. 


Local stakeholders report the presence of any odours to the 24-hour Alberta Environment hotline at 1-800-222-6514. Government authorities then notify local industrial operators of the complaint and require them to assess their operations for possible sources of odours and take remediating action. The regulator informed Syncrude of three odour complaints from the public during 2012 which were attributable to our operation. The odour sources were investigated and promptly resolved. 

In the event of an operational upset or scheduled maintenance which could cause odours or affect air quality, we update the public through the Wood Buffalo Air Information Line. The line also provides the Alberta Environment hotline and Health Link Alberta telephone numbers for those residents who have environmental or health related concerns. The information line was developed by the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association and supported by its members. It is accessed by calling 1-866-685-3699.

Due to an increase in regional odour complaints in recent years, the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association (WBEA) has added three specialized odour instruments at the Fort McKay-Bertha Ganter station. These include: a pneumatically-focused gas chromatograph (PFGC) which can simultaneously detect odour-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and sulphur-containing compounds; a methane/non-methane hydrocarbon analyzer to continuously measure concentrations of hydrocarbons associated with industrial and transportation emission sources; and an electronic “nose” to measure the strength and frequency of odours. These instruments are intended to help pinpoint exact sources of odours and assist oil sands operators to address this issue.

Air Emissions

Unit 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Ozone-depleting substances1
kg of CFC11 equivalent/yr 1,629 1,066 1,316 1,653 1,332
Sulphur dioxide
thousand tonnes/year 70.14 81.31 72.31 64.35 72.28
Sulphur dioxide emission intensity
kg/m3 production 4.12 4.93 4.19 3.82 4.33
Sulphur dioxide emission intensity
tonnes/KBbls 0.66 0.78 0.67 0.61 0.68
Nitrogen oxides
thousand tonnes/year 26.11 28.41 30.85 30.65 27.67
Nitrogen oxides emission intensity
kg/m3 production 1.53 1.72 1.79 1.82 1.66
Nitrogen oxides emission intensity
tonnes/KBbls 0.24 0.27 0.28 0.29 0.26
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)1
thousand tonnes/year 13.90 13.60 13.80 12.41 12.41
VOC emission intensity1
kg/m3 production 0.82 0.83 0.80 0.74 0.74
VOC emission intensity1
tonnes/KBbls 0.13 0.13 0.13 0.12 0.12
NPRI on-site releases1
thousand tonnes/year NPRI NPRI NPRI NPRI NPRI
Sour gas diverting
tonnes per day SO2 0.6 2.0 0.4 0.9 0.7
  1. Detailed breakdown at

Key Air Indicators

Unit 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Diverter stack usage
hours per year 129.16 265.82 56.28 118.09 90.79 < 292
Sour gas flaring
tonnes per day SO2 7.3 3.2 2.4 3.8 3.9 < 5
Main stack sulphur dioxide
hours greater than 16.4 tonnes per hour 3 0 2 0 0 0
Main stack sulphur dioxide
90-day rolling average >245 tonnes 0 0 0 0 0 0
Main stack nitrogen oxides
# of hours > 1.5 tonnes per hour 0 0 0 0 0 0
Main stack opacity
# hours > 40% 84 22 5 9 4 < 5
Ambient air exceedances H2S hourly
# 55 5 0 14 14 0
Ambient air exceedances H2S 24-hour period
# 9 1 0 4 1 0
Ambient air exceedances SO2 hourly
# 1 0 0 0 0 0
Ambient air exceedances SO2 24-hour period
# 0 0 0 0 0 0
Odour incidents
# attributed to SCL 3 1 0 2 3 0