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Floating Tar Sands on the Great Lakes Seems Like a Bad Idea...

Josh Mogerman

Posted January 29, 2013

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Superior Entry Lighthouse by ejocobi82 via Flickr

As our energy landscape is undergoing rapid changes in this country, our infrastructure is playing catchup. For example, there is news out of Wisconsin that operators of a refinery in Superior are considering the construction of a facility in Lake Superior to ship crude oil via tanker in the Great Lakes. Details are sketchy at this point: it is not clear how much oil we are talking about and where it would be shipped. It is clear that some of that oil would be tar sands. And a quick news scan of Monday's headlines reinforces what a bad idea wide-spread oil tanker traffic would be in the system that represents 1/5 of the world’s freshwater:

Look, you can’t even run ships in the Great Lakes all year long due to ice---interestingly, that is part of the genesis of the refinery in Superior. But there are real questions about whether this is something we should be doing at all. The region is already served by a rickety, problematic pipeline network that has sprung leaks a lot of late. Why would we augment that with an even more dangerous new petroleum movement system that would stand as a threat to the source of drinking water and economic vitality for millions? Sure, we float all manner of cargo through the Lakes and some areas of the region are seemingly hopelessly polluted---but that does not strike me as a reasonable argument to open another line of risk with something that has as bad a track record as bitumen.

If you need a reminder of what a tar sands spill in Michigan looked like, here are some eye witnesses:




Superior Entry Lighthouse image by ejocobi82 via Flickr

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Josh MogermanJan 30 2013 02:17 PM


Nice try. But that argument doesn't work. As noted in the post, the Great Lakes are ringed with a pretty massive pipeline system. It handles a huge percentage of the oil coming from Canada---and in Michigan, where that system failed spectacularly, there is a movement afoot to significantly increase capacity.

As for the issue of rail, the Koch Brothers noted in filings that they were using trains to move oil because it was economically viable, not because of pipeline pushback. And given the lack of infrastructure for movement oil in the Bakkens, the increase in rail there is certainly no surprise.

Josh MogermanJan 30 2013 02:38 PM


Thanks for the comment. The text from the blog post came from Reuters' initial reporting, but you are correct that newer reporting reflects Coast Guard estimates at 7,000 gallons, also reflected by AP:

That said, the point remains---accidents happen. Floating tar sands in the Great Lakes is an invitation to an unnecessary and dangerous mess.

Josh MogermanJan 31 2013 10:36 AM


Thanks for the comment. Place matters. Just as we have zoning laws about where we should and shouldn't build buildings, we need to give serious thought to appropriate spots for infrastructure---whether it be wind farms, pipelines, roads, whatever. There are some spots that don't make sense for some projects.

As for pipelines, to be clear, NRDC is not opposed to them. We have raised concerns about pipelines carrying DilBit, a specific kind of raw tar sands oil that is more corrosive and acidic than other petroleums and requires high pressure to move in the pipes. We have called for research about whether that stuff can move safely in pipelines. Those lines have had a rough couple of years with very high profile and spectacular failures in multiple states. Pointing out the worst inland pipeline spill in this nation's history, which is still being cleaned up, is hardly cherry picking.

Goat FoolishFeb 3 2013 11:18 AM

Does VOR think that Climate Change exists... on the level that man actually has some influence. I think this alone should end this argument. But if the "Voice of Reason" does not believe so (which would be kind of crazy if you didn't and then you call yourself Voice of Reason - just sayin) then lets move forward. I personally do private contract work for all kinds of industries and also am a 100 ton Master captain on the Great Lakes. I've also spent 8 years as a guide fisherman on Lake Superior. I work with farmers and the USDA on the never ending process of trying to bring back health to the farm lands which are absolutely being devastated as well as water resources int he area. I own a small company that works with SPF to increase efficiencies in home envelope designs. The list is longer but this is enough to prove my point. In all the areas of the states where I do my work I see the same thing - our natural eco systems of which we cannot divorce civilization from is being edged into nothingness for the sake of comforts, greed and stupidity. Inch by inch we take - and when you look at an inch it does not look like much - but step back and look at the whole... what is one more pipeline what is one more gallon of fuel? What is one more species? How about we close just one more state park? ... on and on... the end all picture for the future especially if you have children just plain sucks. And if you do have children you should be ashamed of yourself for sacrificing future for short term gains. I would suggest that VOR either change his name or change his tune. Can we have a vote? =) *arm rasied*

Goat FoolishFeb 4 2013 09:31 AM

VOR, Assumptions? You mean like the one you just made about environmental groups opposing fossil fuels? Look who is calling the kettle.... There are plenty of environmental groups that think Fossil Fuels are part of the answer - I would even say that I am part of this group! However what we are seeing with the tar sands and new contracts for fossil fuels is a move to continue to build a massive energy system that still runs on stored sunshine.

Goat FoolishFeb 4 2013 09:34 AM

Apologies - let me complete that further... stored sunshine of the Petroleum type.

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