skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Safe Chemicals
Defending the Clean Air Act

Henry Henderson’s Blog

Michigan Oil Spill and World's Dirtiest Oil: why lie?

Henry Henderson

Posted August 26, 2010

, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

Kalamazoo River oil spill sign photo

Tar sands. Canada’s gross gift to the Great Lakes. The core of a “pollution delivery system” to the most important fresh water ecosystem in the Western Hemisphere. Our region is the epicenter of refining for what has been called “the world’s dirtiest oil.” And you get a glimpse at how ugly the stuff is from the pipeline mess in Michigan. Despite assertions to the contrary from Enbridge pipeline CEO Pat Daniel, the estimated million gallons of oil that spilled into the Kalamazoo River last month was indeed tar sands product.

Now it’s not really a surprise that we did not get the whole truth from Enbridge---we’ve seen plenty of that from the oil sector this year---but it is surprising that they would stonewall on such a simple fact like this during an emergency. It was not until the crisis was contained, the chances of a fouled Lake Michigan diminished, and the attention of the press averted that Daniel finally, reluctantly “came clean” on this important fact, admitting that the spill was tar sands product. If, as an alternative, the pipeline company actually had no idea what it was pushing through its pipes, we would be faced with not just disingenuousness but a truly horrifying degree of basic ignorance on the part of Enbridge… But, let’s just stick with the “disingenuous” issue…

Why does it matter that it was a tar sands spill? Well, for one thing, tar sands are made from bitumen. Bitumen was oil long, long ago, but over time it degraded into something thicker and nastier that has to be extracted by strip mining or steaming it out of the sandy ground in Alberta. It is dirtier in every fashion: from the impact on the land, the air and water pollution it creates, the increased carbon pollution compared to more traditional oils, even the chemical composition of the stuff which is heavy in sulfur, VOCs and heavy metals. And yesterday the EPA announced that they are finding mercury and nickel in the water and on the shores of the river cleanup sites. That would have been easily predicted had Enbridge been honest and up front.

The tar sands issue is not going away. Canada is already our biggest oil supplier and there are predictions out there that the tar sands will become our single biggest source of imported oil in less than five years. The Web of infrastructure to make that happen has been going into place for some time now, but a few controversial pieces still are being put into place, which might explain Enbridge’s unwillingness to admit the tar sands aspect of the story. BP’s controversial refinery expansion is moving forward on the southern shores of Lake Michigan despite public outrage over increased air and water pollution even though the USEPA sent their lax air pollution permits back to the drawing board. A massive pipeline sending tar sands from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf coast is the source of significant controversy in DC as the EPA and State Department square off about its safety, merits and environmental impact. And Enbridge desperately wants to build a pipeline in Canada connecting the tar sands mines to the British Columbia coast so that the dirty oil can be shipped to Asia (currently, it is almost all piped south to the U.S.).

Shhhh. It’s best for Enbridge and Big Oil if this is all kept quiet.

They are hoping that these issues are kept as unconnected. Because if the First Nations tribes in Canada see the mess in Michigan, they will trust Enbridge even less than they do now (which is not much considering the problem the pipeline company is having in getting right of way for the project). And if the landowners in the Plains states who are already chafing about pipeline plans for Keystone XL find out about the heavy metal contamination in the Kalamazoo they might get even more worried about their sensitive farm fields and shallow aquifers. And if people in northwest Indiana realize that the toxic sludge spilled in Michigan originated from Griffith, just a few miles from BP Whiting, they might be more concerned about the mammoth project in their midst.

And if people get more concerned, it might just make things a lot tougher for Big Oil in the coming years.


Kalamazoo River Oil Spill image by Sierra Club via Flickr


Share | | |


MikeAug 27 2010 01:44 PM

Well....seriously...who cares whether or not the oil the leaked was crude or synthetic crude? They were shipping raw bitumen down the line. If it was indeed a "product of the tar sands", then by the time it got to the leak sight, it was already upgraded and was Synthetic Crude....not that much different in viscosity or nature to raw crude.

It truely doesn't matter where it came from, it pollutes just the same.

Josh MogermanAug 27 2010 07:02 PM


It seems to me that a couple things matter:

First, in a crisis, transparency is important. EPA in press and stakeholder calls said that they only knew that what spilled was crude from Western Canada. When asked if it was tar sands, they said they would have to ask Enbridge. Who knows what Enbridge told them.

Secondly, tar sands oil is different. Refineries have to be replumbed to deal with the dirty and highly abrasive goo. It is higher in sulfer, VOCs, and heavy metals than typical petroleums. And its is worth noting that EPA announced yesterday that they are finding nickel and mercury in the water and shores of the Kalamazoo River at the cleanup sites.

True, EPA stated that their plans for containing the spill would be the same whether it was tar sands or light sweet crude, but that extra load of nastiness associated with tar sands is something that the folks in the area should be made aware.

And perhaps more importantly, while this was an older pipe, Americans need to understand that the rapid and sizable expansion of pipeline infrastructure is related to this fuel source. At a time when the public has clearly stated an interest in a clean energy future, massive projects like Keystone XL are an attempt to make us beholden to one of the world's dirtiest energy sources---making messes like we see in Michigan more common.

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Henry Henderson’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In