A hazy day in Houston TX. Image credit:Texas 2000 Air Quality Study
A few years back I wrote about plans for the Murphy Oil Refinery in northeastern Wisconsin to expand operations 700%, to take advantage of tar sands oil piped in from Canada. At the time - using a made-up term - I cautioned half jokingly that such goings on could "Texify" Midwestern culture and environment. This year brought signs that the risk is real; and regulators are, thankfully, responding to the challenges.
First the water risk. The government response to this sign of broader risk was, unfortunately, reactive. Recall the Enbridge oil pipeline which recently ruptured in Western Michigan - near Lake Michigan, source of drinking water for millions? That ruptured line is part of an oil pipeline network that could or does distribute Alberta tar sand oil to Midwestern refineries and beyond (see graphic below for details). Air pollutants.
This Texifier risk was handled proactively - indicating that the sleeping regulatory giant has awakened at last. From the USEPA press release, Murphy Oil USA to Pay $1.25 Million Penalty to Resolve Clean Air Act Violations.
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Justice Department announced that Murphy Oil USA has agreed to pay a $1.25 million civil penalty to resolve violations of the Clean Air Act at its petroleum refineries in Meraux, La. and Superior, Wis. As part of the settlement, the company will spend more than $142 million to install new and upgraded pollution reduction equipment at the refineries and also spend an additional $1.5 million on a supplemental environmental project.Take note: this is not a penalty for missing paperwork or poor record keeping. They have to install $142 million worth of new or upgraded pollution controls.
States are doing their part.
The states of Wisconsin and Louisiana actively participated in the settlement with Murphy, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.
Here's an overview of the Midwestern pipeline network I mentioned, from Enbridge.
And my point is?
Wring your hands all you want about the expanded carbon footprint of tar sands oil-based fuels. It won't stop the expansions and refining operations. Demand for oil is there and growing.
Give all the celebrity politicians you want the tar sands tour; and issue press releases from either side. The laws of the land come first. Let's see if the tar sands supply chain can meet basic, long-standing public safety, health, and environmental standards. For Canada, the USA, and the Great Lakes states, as pictured. Will it then be such a great investment to pipe and refine the stuff?
The private sector can answer that question best. However, local and state elected officials and those submitting testimony ought first to look into Houston TX area air quality (as pictured) and ask themselves if they want life to be like that..or not. It is their choice to make, now.
Upper mid-westerners reading this might well be thinking 'we can handle this on our own' But, what they may not be considering just yet is what will happen when the tar sand oil flow scales up, the US becomes even more highly dependent on it, national security is invoked, and the full force of industry lobbyists is unleashed.
Now is the time to make sure those pipelines are built and maintained as well as possible, that refineries will have best available control technology (no more "grandfathered" permits for operating equipment), and that there will be management systems in place in industry to keep it that way. Enforcement should only be a fail-safe mechanism, not the primary tool for protecting health safety and environment. Though sometimes the sheriff does have to walk the beat.
If you live in the Midwest, better hope that those who idolize free markets don't get a voting majority in the US Senate. If they do, you and your kids are going to be breathing air that looks like that in the photo up top. So, get out the vote.
Additional posts on Enbridge.
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