From ground to air to space: COSIA members are seeking year-round ground-to-air-to-satellite monitoring of emissions

COSIA member, Canadian Natural is conducting a study to increase measurement accuracy of fugitive emissions from tailings ponds and mine faces in the oil sands region. Leading an Area Fugitive Emissions Measurement Program, Canadian Natural's Nick Veriotes is responsible to complete a three year, $13 million multidisciplinary study that is employing a range of sophisticated technologies and innovations to develop more precise methods of monitoring and measuring area fugitive emissions.

“How can you manage something you can’t measure accurately?” That’s the question Nick asked himself after looking at the very wide variations in area fugitive emissions being recorded at tailings ponds and mine faces across the oil sands region.

Oil sands mining operators are required to conduct annual measurements of fugitive emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from tailings ponds and mine faces. Along with all other emissions, these fugitive emissions are reported annually to the Alberta government for compliance purposes.

The most common method currently used for quantifying fugitive emissions is the flux chamber, a relatively small (0.3-meter in diameter) hood which is either floated on the surface of a pond or set on the mine face to capture a sample of emissions that rise from the surface over a 30 minute period. This measurement is then extrapolated over millions of square meters to estimate the total fugitive emissions over an entire year.

There are several limitations to the flux chamber method, says Nick. The area being sampled is very small relative to the total area of the pond or mine face and cannot fully account for the fluctuations in emission levels that occur from one part of a site to another. The samples are typically collected in the summer, when emissions are the highest, and do not factor in the significantly lower cold season emissions when estimating overall annual emission levels. Similarly, fugitive emissions can also fluctuate between day and night and concentration measurements can be influenced by wind or other atmospheric conditions.

“What’s most interesting,” says Nick, “is bringing all these different disciplines and perspectives to bear on one key challenge — getting accurate and consistent data when measuring emissions.”

A preliminary study coordinated by Nick identified striking variations when it comes to emission levels estimated using the flux chamber method. Variations in yearly and from one site to another in the same year can be significant indicating the challenge of collecting consistent and accurate data. Through analysis of these measurement variations, Nick was able to focus on the cause and work with technology suppliers and air emissions experts to seek a solution through a research program

In consultation with the Alberta government and Emissions Reduction Alberta who have provided $5 million in funding for the project, and in collaboration with COSIA industry partners, the project is harnessing the expertise of a number of innovators and academic institutions. It’s also employing a small army of drones, sensors, lasers, fiber optic technology, meteorological data and computer models. Together, they are seeking to provide ground-to-air-to-satellite monitoring of emissions on a 24/7, all-season basis.

The monitoring will focus on Canadian Natural’s tailings pond and adjacent mine at their Horizon Oil Sands operation, begins this spring and will continue over a three-year period. The data and computer modelling that flows from this project is expected to provide a more accurate assessment of overall annual fugitive emissions and help inform longer-term monitoring and mitigation strategies for the industry at large.

Ground readings (including from flux chambers) will be compared with data collected from unmanned drones flying up to 500 feet in altitude; from fixed-wing aircraft flying above that; and, higher still, from satellite measurements provided by the ongoing GHGSat COSIA project. The latter is a joint industry project led by Imperial in collaboration with Canadian Natural and Suncor, that is working with GHGSat (a global emissions monitoring company based in Quebec) to provide more accurate and frequent measurements of fugitive emissions from space.

In part, says Nick, the Area Fugitive Emissions Measurement project is about “stacking up different technologies and comparing their robustness. We hope to learn which technology, or combination of technologies, can deliver the most accurate long-term monitoring on an economically feasible basis.”

It’s an eclectic mix of collaborators that have been drawn together. In addition to COSIA industry partners and GHGSat, the list of participants includes: the University of Guelph, the University of Alberta, the University of British Columbia, SAIT, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, RWDI Air Inc., Luxmux Technology Corporation, Agar Corporation, Boreal Laser, the Petroleum Technology Alliance Canada and Environment Climate Change Canada (ECCC).

“What’s most interesting,” says Nick, “is bringing all these different disciplines and perspectives to bear on one key challenge — getting accurate and consistent data when measuring emissions.”

Yet another collaborative effort underway in this area is being led by Suncor, in cooperation with Alberta Environment and Parks, the University of Alberta and ECCC. In this case, new ground-based remote sensing technologies, situated on the banks of a Suncor tailings pond, are being used to measure concentrations of methane and carbon dioxide over the pond and calculate emissions based on advanced algorithms.

The initial sample collection took place over a two-month period in the fall of 2017. The next phase is the crucial one — generating an algorithm that will, in turn, lead to an accurate assessment of emission rates from the pond.

“The first step was detection,” says James Beck, Environmental Engineering, Enterprise-Technical, with Suncor. “The second part is developing tools and methodologies that can accurately estimate emissions on a daily and yearly basis.”

James adds that the ultimate choice of technologies for monitoring and measuring fugitive emissions may depend on a combination of efficacy and economics.

“In terms of cost-effectiveness, satellite monitoring may be the best,” he says, “but the sensitivity to distinguish between background and actual emissions from the tailings pond appears to be less than ideal. Ground-based systems have the best detection capabilities, but are quite costly to do on a 24/7 basis. Ultimately, we need to determine just how big a problem fugitive emissions are and find the most effective methods for monitoring and reducing those emissions.”


Nick Veriotes, Ph.D candidate with the University of Guelph, Air Emissions Lead, Environment, Canadian Natural

James Beck, Environmental Engineering, Enterprise-Technical, Suncor Energy