Who could forget the BP Lake Michigan discharge controversy. Looks like Alberta Tar Sands extracted crude oil will be refined in the Lake Superior watershed as well.
"Arkansas-based Murphy Oil Corp. has been meeting with environmental regulators from the State of Wisconsin and the federal government to find out what permits it would need to launch its own $6 billion refinery expansion in the lakeside city of Superior. City officials claim the upgrade would boost refinery capacity from 35,000 barrels a day to 235,000."The Lake Michigan discharge permit controversy involving BP played out for a few months this summer, after which:- "BP said in August that it still intends to move ahead with its refinery expansion, but it will not take advantage of its new permit and will continue to operate under the provisions of its existing permit."
"City of Superior officials are thrilled about the prospects of a project that could create 300 to 400 on-site, permanent jobs that would send economic waves throughout the region in additional jobs piggybacked on those created directly by the oil company."
Here's the thing. If Lake Michigan is the emerald of the Great Lakes, Superior is the Hope Diamond. And Canada owns half that gem. The convenience of expanding a refinery that happens to be located on the Alberta pipeline is a cost-benefit, and prevents another site from being built. Handy, also, is a small city that would be grateful for a few hundred well-paying jobs. But.. the big picture is missing, so far, from the public discourse on this and related proposals. Chicago area politicians see part of it. Maybe Wisconsin or Minnesota area politicians will too.
"Addressing a group of Great Lakes conservationists at a gathering in Chicago last week, U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) said lessons can be learned from the BP controversy. He said that 10 years ago, things would have gone BP's way. No more. "There is an alternative and a different consciousness," he said. "That's our Grand Canyon. That's our Yellowstone National Park," Emanuel said, pointing east toward Lake Michigan. "You touch it, you'd better know what the hell you are doing.""
It's no coincidence that both the Chicago area BP refinery and the Superior Wisconsin Murphy refinery are planning massive expansions to work with Alberta Tar Sands extracted crude oil.
These plans are simply stunning in light of the fact that no major US refinery expansions have occurred in decades, a condition that, at times, has left the US with no more than a few weeks worth of gasoline and increased the amplitude of price swings when shortages occur, for whatever reason.
The lack of buffer in refinery capacity creates a certain vulnerability, viewed from the "homeland security" mindset, with the repeated annual threat of hurricanes taking out Gulf Coast infrastructure, with rebels brazenly attacking pipelines of the US' second largest oil supplier, Mexico, with over 13% of refined fuels being imported from offshore refineries, and with Venezula having passed its oil production peak in 1970.
So what does all this mean? Yeah, we know, the US needs more refining capacity almost as much as it needs dramatically better fuel efficiency standards. What we're driving at with this question is a higher level of thinking and public discourse about sustainable development.
What future space for fuel infrastructure and environmental quality is the US headed toward?
Look over this pipeline map from Enbridge and we'll comment a bit.
Any existing refinery on the Alberta pipeline routes is a candidate for future expansions. New ones could come as well. Environmental permits and public involvement will play a huge role in determining when where and how these expansions occur (as amply demonstrated by the BP Whiting case). The Chicago vs BP discussions are therefore hugely important as precedent for public involvement.
Chicago and Superior are just the beginning. Looking over the biggest existing US refineries, obvious candidates for expansion in Illinois include: Blue Island, Lemont, Wood River, Joliet, and Robinson.
There are two sites in Saint Paul Minnesota ("Prairie Home Expansion"). Note that these are in the Mississippi watershed.
Michigan has a refinery in Detroit (of course). Great Lakes watershed for certain.
There's a whole pile of them in Oklahoma.
And we already covered Whiting Indiana.
Of all these candidate sites, only three would discharge treated wastewater directly into one of the Great Lakes: Superior WI and Whiting (BP) Indiana, in the Chicago area, and Detroit MI.
Considering all the vulnerabilities mentioned, the long term scenario we are looking at is the Texification of the Midwest. Keep in mind that refineries don't produce just fuel. Polyethylene can be made from naphtha, a refinery byproduct. In other words, the Alberta oil stream has the potential to turn the Midwest in a hotbed of fuel production and petrochemical manufacturing, with all the commensurate air quality, public health, water use, and energy consumption issues that go with it.
Inquiring minds want to know: which US candidate sites among those listed will have the easiest time getting air permits modified; and, which metro areas will suffer most from air quality degradation. We recommend this excellent presentation by Micheal Koerber if you want to explore these questions on your own. But here's a hint on the air quality impact.
This also means that Midwestern state governors and their respective US Congressional delegations need to take seriously the recent changes to national ambient air quality standards and pollution control standards for refineries. They need to start working together on election platforms. Because air pollution and water pollution both do not respect political boundaries. General MacArthur style greeting: Canada, we're back!