COSIA teams with world's top scientists to accelerate study of fugitive emissions

As the world’s top climate change scientists, industry, government and academia work on a range of projects to capture and measure fugitive emissions in the oil sands, several COSIA member companies will co-fund an unprecedented effort this summer. 

Suncor, Alberta Environment and Parks, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and the University of Alberta will connect at the Suncor Base Plant north of Fort McMurray to test several innovative remote sensing technologies, measuring concentrations of substances in the air over a large area source – in this case, a tailings pond site. The GHGs in tailings ponds are emitted in low concentrations and as such are not as easy to measure as, say, stacks or burner exhaust streams.

“We hope to calculate mass flow rates for greenhouse gasses (GHG) and other air emissions from tailings ponds and replace the current best practice technology with a more reliable and repeatable approach,” explains Suncor’s Dan Burt, Specialist, GHG. “The results will be shared with other oil sands mining companies through COSIA so that we can jointly develop and use new industry best practices.”

This six to eight-week exercise will mark the first time a coordinated effort has brought together a diverse project team of Principal Investigators including government, industry and academia using their own varying innovative methods of measuring emissions, which separately in the past have yielded inconclusive results. 

One ‘bottom-up’ method currently used by all oil sands industry partners features a flux chamber, which is a large hood floated on the surface of a pond or set on the mine face to capture emissions that rise from the surface.

Operators then measure the amount of emissions captured within the chamber and use it to estimate the total emissions from the mine face or tailings pond.

New ground-based remote sensing methods situated on the banks of the tailings pond can measure concentrations directly over the pond and calculate emissions based on advanced algorithms. These are the technologies being tested in 2017.

Another current but innovative practice - referred to as ‘top down’ - includes readings captured from the air using fixed wing aircraft. It uses state of the art analytical equipment and a specially outfitted airplane, funded by the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program, which industry contributes to through an annual fee of $50 million. 

So, which readings are the most reliable? And how should the results be analyzed and interpreted? That’s what COSIA and its partners hope to learn.

In science, if you have different studies drawing variable conclusions and opinions, it’s important to work side by sideand bring all the tools together at one time.

“This is one of COSIA’s strengths, that we are able to bring together member companies and collaborators from outside the industry to compare these methods simultaneously, and hopefully draw more definitive conclusions,” says Dr. Kelly Munkittrick, COSIA Director, Monitoring.  

“In science, if you have different studies drawing variable conclusions and opinions, it’s important to work side by side and bring all the tools together at one time. It’s one way we are accelerating the pace of environmental improvements.”

But far from the only way.

Through JOSM, Industry has teamed up with the Governments of Canada and Alberta, and are mutually committed to implementing scientifically rigorous, comprehensive, integrated and transparent environmental monitoring of the oil sands.  

In one ground-breaking example, COSIA is utilizing the world’s first commercial satellite for measuring GHG and potentially air quality gas (AQG) emissions from wide area sources like mine faces and tailings ponds in the oil sands.

Working with GHGSat (a global emissions monitoring company based in Quebec), the data gathered by this satellite over the next year will enable precise monitoring of fugitive emissions from targeted sites and facilities more safely, reliably and cost-effectively than current methods.

Overall, satellite measurements of fugitive emissions are expected to provide more precise measurements of total industry emissions. It also enables measurements to be made over longer time periods, in different seasons, to be able to better understand variations in emissions.

As the industry moves closer to determining the best emissions monitoring practices, using these and other methodologies, it can ultimately introduce technological advancements to counter fugitive emissions.

“Overall, COSIA works with some of Canada’s, and the world’s, top scientists on innovations to reduce GHGs and impacts on air, water and land,” Kelly adds.


Dan Burt, M.Eng., MSc., P.Eng, is a Specialist, GHG, Enterprise Technical - Environmental Engineering at Suncor Energy.

Kelly Munkittrick, Ph.D, is the Director of COSIA’s Monitoring PA.