Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

Great Lakes Region: Refinery emissions could pollute our water

Refinery emissions could pollute our water
Published On Sun Sep 12 2010

David Israelson Special to the Star

As Canadians look with dismay at the aftermath of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it turns out that’s not the only place we need to worry about leaking oil.

What happened in the Gulf has implications for what happens to water in Canada, right here on the Great Lakes. There’s ever-increasing pressure to supply the oil-thirsty U.S. with more product from Alberta’s tar sands.

The Great Lakes are at the receiving end of a large and growing pollution delivery system—a network of pipelines and refineries that take the oil from the tar sands to the U.S. heartland for processing. We recently had a grim glimpse of the risk when an Enbridge pipeline in Michigan broke in July and spilled 3 million litres of oil into the Kalamazoo River.

These kinds of accidents are bad enough. But there is another threat, poorly understood and poorly measured, from emissions at the refineries all around the Great Lakes.

Emissions from Wisconsin, Indiana (near Chicago), Michigan and elsewhere end up falling as toxic rain into Canadian water. The biggest refinery in the region, in Whiting, Indiana, happens to be a BP facility.

There’s a growing debate the virtues and shortcomings of Alberta’s oil sands. Canada’s economy depends on them, yet troubling questions remain about the water and energy needed to extract the oil from the sands, and about the huge carbon emissions that result. Bowing to pressure, lenders, including Canadian banks, are starting to take a closer look at the regulatory, social and environmental issues stemming from the oil sands.

Whether the oil sands are good or terrible for Canada, the fact is we don’t know much about the emissions that will spew out over the U.S. Midwest—and our Great Lakes—when the oil is refined.

There is already a vast network of pipeline extensions and proposed extensions leading from Fort McMurray (the oil sands region) to refineries at the tips of lakes Superior, Michigan and Erie. The most controversial refinery is BP’s in Whiting, a 119-year-old facility the company is spending nearly $4 billion to modernize.

Indiana authorities had issued a permit to BP to increase its discharges into the Great Lakes, but this raised the ire of then-Illinois Senator Barrack Obama and then-Chicago Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (now President Obama’s chief of staff).

Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered BP to back off; the EPA wants to review the air permits issued by Indiana.

But the refinery could still be a big problem for the Great Lakes.

The problem is that even when they get regulated, there a number of ways that oil refineries go about “gaming the system”–fixing the numbers for air emissions so they seem lower than what is really spewing out. For example, accidental emissions don’t always get counted, and companies have been allowed to choose which emissions they report and which parts of the plant these come from.

We also don’t know enough about what noxious air emissions do to the Great Lakes when they rise up, condense into clouds and then blow around and fall on us as toxic rain.

Who to trust? After the Gulf, not the industry.

“Over and over, we’ve seen BP act as a very cheap company. They have been cheap in their approach to safety and cheap in their approach to the environment,” says Anne Alexander, a senior attorney with the Chicago office of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental powerhouse.

She told Chicago Public Radio recently that what happened in the Gulf of Mexico should be a warning for the refinery expansion: “They cut corners on the environment and safety in order to enhance the speed of their projects and the profit that they expected to make.”

Canada is caught in a bind. We supply the oil to this pollution delivery system, yet we have little to say about how our neighbours refine it, and what that means for our own waters.

Should we demand the highest emission standards for refineries in the U.S. – standards that we wouldn’t meet ourselves? Who would listen? Or should our federal and provincial governments push harder to have oil companies do more refining on our side of the border?

The International Joint Commission that oversees Canada-U.S. waters raised the emissions issue three years ago, but then… not much. The federal government has been unfocused and inattentive to this issue, and the Ontario government has also been remarkably quiet.

This may not affect our water yet, but it will. Remember, too, that the oil refined along the Great Lakes spews out these emissions before even one drop gets into our cars and trucks, which spew out more. Canadians should pay attention.

David Israelson is a writer, policy analyst and communications consultant.


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