Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist and public radio commentator.
By Eric Hansen
Will Lake Superior and the Upper Great Lakes region continue to be the land of sky blue waters? Or will a vast swath of our pristine waters become a fading memory, soiled by the leaks and spills of a massive network of tar sands crude oil pipelines and maritime traffic?
Expanding proposals for more pipeline capacity by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, as well as plans to ship tar sands crude oil across Lake Superior and other Great Lakes, are astonishing in their sheer scale.
For example, Enbridge is currently seeking to nearly double the capacity of its Alberta Clipper pipeline — which runs from Alberta, Canada, through Minnesota to Superior — to 880,000 barrels per day. That pipeline is a key enabler, a head gate for tar sands crude oil expansion projects in Wisconsin and throughout the region.
A regionwide public comment period for a Minnesota permit for that project is currently open, and an overflow crowd attended an April 3 hearing in St. Paul. Wisconsin regulators tabled an earlier permit application for a tar sands crude oil maritime loading dock in Superior after citizens objected. →
Petroleum coke piles along the Calumet River in Chicago in October. (Photo by Josh Mogerman via Creative Commons)
Representatives of Illinois’s coal, oil and gas, chemical, shipping and other industries on Wednesday denounced Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposed emergency rules regarding the storage of petcoke – a byproduct of tar sands refining that is sold as fuel mostly to overseas customers.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency filed the proposed rules on January 16, and after an weeklong public comment period the Illinois Pollution Control Board will decide whether to adopt the rules. (UPDATE: The board rejected the rules on Thursday.)
On a press conference call, industry representatives blasted Quinn for invoking an emergency rulemaking process when they contend there is no emergency. →
Tom Shepherd, a neighborhood activist, worries about piles of petcoke building up along the Calumet River in Chicago. (Photo by Kari Lydersen / Midwest Energy News)
Community activists on Chicago’s Southeast Side are always on the lookout for signs of new pollution, dumping or other threats to the environment and quality of life in this heavily industrialized swath of the city.
So members of the Southeast Environmental Task Force were highly disturbed earlier this year when, on a boat trip to check out other potential pollution sources, they saw towering mounds of fine, jet-black material lining the banks of the Calumet River.
Coal, crushed limestone, slag from steel mills and other bulk materials have long been stored along the river, shipped in and out on barges. But these piles, they suspected, were petroleum coke, or “petcoke,” the byproduct of refining heavy tar sands oil.
In July piles of petcoke made bi-national headlines as dark clouds swirled over the Detroit River by the Ambassador Bridge leading to Canada. That petcoke was from the Marathon Detroit Oil refinery, which has expanded to process tar sands oil.
In August, Southeast Chicago residents saw similar clouds themselves. One local resident posted a photo on Facebook after an August 30 wind storm, showing a billowing thick black haze. →
On Friday afternoon, Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured, spilling between 80,000 and 420,000 gallons of tar sands diluted bitumen in a suburban neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas.
In 2010, a similar tar sands diluted bitumen spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River watershed demonstrated that diluted bitumen spills were significantly more challenging to clean up and damaging to the environment, particularly water bodies, than conventional crude. Moreover, tar sands diluted bitumen pipelines typically operate at significantly higher temperatures than conventional crude pipelines, increasing their risk of rupture due to external corrosion and other factors.
While details regarding the cause of the rupture and the magnitude of the spill are still coming in, the Mayflower tar sands spill is yet another demonstration of the risks that tar sands pipelines pose to the communities and sensitive water resources they cross. At about a tenth of the full capacity of the Keystone XL tar sands pipelines, the 90,000 bpd Pegasus pipeline rupture offers us a small sample of the risk that tar sands pipelines pose to American communities. →
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is arrested in front of the White House Wednesday during a Keystone XL protest. (Photo by cool revolution via Creative Commons)
Detroit resident Rhonda Anderson is heading to Washington D.C. to join thousands of people from across the nation in a protest Sunday calling on President Obama to take action on climate change, including by rejecting TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Anderson opposes Keystone XL, which would carry Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast, but she says other Midwesterners are already being impacted in other ways by the industry.
Residents who live near pipelines and refineries already handling tar sands say their experiences raise red flags about Keystone XL; and they are also calling for increased regulatory scrutiny for existing tar sands pipelines and infrastructure.
“There are instances of tar sands projects affecting communities all across the country,” said Kady McFadden, an associate organizer for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “The Keystone we see as the biggest offender, which is why so much attention has been given to it, but we’re also giving (Sunday’s event) a local focus and face, saying these are places tar sands are already being brought and already having effects.” →
The BP refinery at Whiting, Indiana. (Photo by Eric Allix Rogers via Creative Commons)
For the past few years neighbors of the BP Whiting oil refinery in northwest Indiana, just across the border from Chicago, have watched the already-sprawling facility expand its footprint with new equipment to process tar sands oil from Alberta.
Tar sands and the chemicals used to dilute it so it can be transported through pipes mean more impurities and pollutants to be removed in the refining process, so local residents and environmental and health groups feared serious increases in pollution with the tar sands expansion.
But a new “open path” monitoring system likely to be announced in coming days – the result of an environmental justice lawsuit filed by neighbors – along with an EPA consent decree announced May 23 means BP Whiting can be a model for other refineries and also offers residents a chance to actively watch for signs of excessive pollution. →
Refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, the southern terminus of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
While the Keystone XL pipeline may not receive direct payments from the U.S. government, an analysis by two environmental groups finds that taxpayers could be on the hook for more than $1 billion in tax breaks for the refiners that will process the oil.
The report by Oil Change International and Earth Track looks at capacity upgrades made to three Gulf Coast refineries that will process the crude shipped via Keystone XL. Under Title 179C of the U.S. tax code, oil refineries can deduct depreciation from such investments at an accelerated rate. The tax break, the groups say, is unique to the refining industry and an amendment last year extend the rule specifically to equipment used to process crude from the oil sands.
All told, the analysis [PDF] finds taxpayers will spend $1 billion to $1.8 billion subsidizing these upgrades. The report’s authors characterize their estimate as “conservative.”
And the upgrades to one of these refineries, Valero Port Arthur, is being described to investors as enabling the processing of Canadian crude into diesel and jet fuel for export.
From Oil Change International’s blog post on the report:
The public has the right to both know how our money supports Big Oil and see a thorough evaluation of any proposal the oil industry has for expanding its infrastructure. Such an examination would throw light on the true costs of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when we need to reduce our dependence on oil, rather than simply trumpeting the short term benefits to companies involved.
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