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Water or Oil? Report says tar sands muck up Great Lakes

Josh Mogerman

Posted October 8, 2008

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Canada is the leading provider of oil to the US. But sadly, a growing percentage of that petroleum oozing south comes in the form of goop from Alberta's tar sands mines, most of which makes its way to the Great Lakes Region for refining. The University of Toronto released a report Wednesday that sets up an uncomfortable question about that dynamic. We really need to ask ourselves:

Which is more important to North America, fresh water or more oil?

Tar Sands. NRDC has pressed discussion and analysis of Tar Sands in multiple policy papers, advocacy briefings, legislative testimony, community meetings, and litigation. And, of course, here on Switchboard; how it is responsible for 3 times more greenhouse gas pollution as conventional crude oil, how it's extraction is destroying vast swaths of Canada and maybe creating mutant fish, how it might adversely affect communities that are already struggling, and how investments in its dirty infrastructure retards the growth of the clean energy economy we so desperately need in this country. But the University of Toronto's report entitled How the Oil Sands got to the Great Lakes Basin: Pipelines, refineries and emissions to air and water sets the scene for a much more urgent discussion.

Is our thirst for oil powerful enough to jeopardize the Great Lakes, which represent 1/5 of the world's fresh water?

In the University of Toronto report, researchers spell out how new transcontinental pipelines stretching from Alberta into the heart of Great Lakes and massive refinery expansions in the U.S. Midwest are creating a "pollution delivery system" that threatens our air and water quality, as well as human health in the region. The report outlines significant and growing damage already underway from refineries and pipelines---and calls for more research on the particular health threats that are likely unique to low grade bitumen products.

We know CO2 and an ugly array of pollutants will be raining down into the lakes as the expansions move forward, we know because the refineries have asked for permission to do this in the form of air and water pollution permits.

I am still making my way through the University of Toronto's report, and while it is gratifying to see NRDC's battle for stricter air permits for BP's Whiting, IN refinery and our recent settlement with ConocoPhillips cited as lone bright spots in the story, the narrative itself is otherwise fairly scary. It tells the same tale as NRDC's Midwest program has since its inception: the use of tar sands speeds climate change, destroys one of the most precious ecosystems on Earth, and forces disproportionate costs on the communities impacted by tar sands in the form of public health and environmental degradation.

That means that if you live near one of the massive refineries that are being retooled to deal with this stuff, you are going to be seeing more asthma and respiratory problems in your community. And we can't forget that if we let nasty pollutants go up into the air all around the Great Lakes---well, what goes up, must come down---and it will come down, into the drinking water source for ore than 30 million Americans (and plenty of Canadians too). If you live in the Midwest, you should be paying attention.

Last week there was much rejoicing when the Great Lakes Compact was signed. But the protections that were put in place are likely moot if we are going to allow our waters to be fouled by aggressively supporting the infrastructure for, what the report calls, a "pollution delivery system."

There is good news. In Canada, there is a growing awakening to the dangers present within their borders. I have talked to Canadian journalists trying to understand how the tar sands affect their nation's image internationally. And the opinion pages of Canadian newspapers reflect an ever-more conflicted public trying to weigh the undeniable environmental impacts against the economic windfall of oil.

In the U.S., the media is starting to pick up on the inherent problems of trying to fighting climate change while the oil companies and many in our government are advocating for the dirtiest fuel sources they can find. Reports like this one support and reinforce the arguments that NRDC is making in Indiana, Illinois, and DC.

We recently filed suit against the State Department over the proposed Keystone pipeline, which would move dirty tar sands oil from Alberta to Illinois for refining. When signing the treaties, the State Department treated the pipeline as though it was a benign tube, with limited environmental impacts. We will be arguing that activities past the ends of the tube need to be considered, so stay tuned!


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CameronOct 9 2008 12:39 PM

Great post, Josh, and a really important issue. One thing: I think you mean "adversely affect communities" not "adversely effect communities."

Josh MogermanOct 9 2008 04:50 PM

Oops. Thanks Cam. And, BTW, you guys are doing great work at Thin Green Line---a great addition to the SanFran blog scene.


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