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Did tar sands crude spill into Lake Michigan?


No Tar Sands
Photo: ‘No Tar Sands in Our Lake’ banner at Friday’s protest. Photo from So It Goes.

On Friday, BP announced that up to 39 barrels (1,638 gallons) of crude oil spilled from its Whiting refinery into Lake Michigan. That’s double the amount the company had previously estimated for the March 24 spill.

Steve Horn comments at DeSmogBlog.com that, “No one really knows for sure what type of crude it was. Most signs, however, point to tar sands.” In a September 2011 campaign blog we noted that the refinery has a capacity to refine 405,000 barrels a day, with about 10 per cent of that being supplied by the tar sands. ABC News now reports, “The company completed work in late 2013 on a $4.2 billion expansion and upgrade of the refinery that will make it a top processor of heavy crude oil extracted from Canada’s tar sand deposits.” And the Chicago Tribune reported this week that the spill came “less than a year after BP started up a new unit to process Canadian tar sands at its Whiting refinery”.

Tar sands crude from Alberta is transported to the BP Whiting refinery via the 1,600-kilometre Enbridge Line 67 pipeline from Hardisty, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin. From there it connects with the Enbridge Line 6A pipeline. Horn writes, “Part of Enbridge’s ‘Lakehead System’, Line 6A stretches from Superior, Wis., to Enbridge’s Griffith/Hartsdale holding terminal in northwest Indiana.” 

Council of Canadians organizer Mark Calzavara has noted, “Line 6a (ruptured) near Kalamazoo Michigan in 2010 which released 3.3 million litres of dilbit into the environment. It was the largest inland oil spill ever in North American. After three years and over one billion dollars in cleanup costs, the river is still significantly polluted and Enbridge is now arguing that further cleanup will do more harm than good- essentially admitting that tar sands oil cannot be effectively cleaned up in the case of a spill.”

The Council of Canadians extends its solidarity to those who protested on Friday the Whiting refinery spill. The Chicagoist reports, “More than 100 rallied outside BP’s offices during the Friday rush hour and attempted to deliver an open letter demanding accountability.” The protest was organized by the Global Climate Convergence and the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands.

Beyond spills into the lake, the New York Times has reported, “Chicago politicians and advocates for the Great Lakes raised a huge outcry in 2007 when Indiana officials granted BP a new permit that would allow it to release significantly increased amounts of ammonia and suspended solids, or sludge, into Lake Michigan as part of the expansion. …(Additionally), because tar sands are much heavier and contain more sulfur than conventional oil, they must be diluted with a volatile natural gas product to make them sufficiently liquid to be shipped. Once they arrive at Whiting, these toxic compounds need to be removed and disposed of during refining.”


Photo: Crews cleaning up oil spill along Lake Michigan from the BP Whiting refinery. Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune.

Photo: Crews cleaning up oil spill along Lake Michigan from the BP Whiting refinery. Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune.

The Council of Canadians has also been opposing the proposal by Calumet to ship tar sands crude on the Great Lakes, which could have a connection to the BP Whiting refinery. Maude Barlow writes in her new report Liquid Pipeline: Extreme energy’s threat to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, “Starting in Superior, Wisconsin, explains Platts, a journal that provides information on energy commodities, the crude would travel to Lake Michigan to access BP’s 405,000 barrel-a-day Whiting, Indiana refinery, and from there, be shipped across the Chicago locks to ExxonMobil’s 238,000 barrel-a-day refinery in Joliet, Illinois or to Citgo Petroleum’s 167,000 barrel-a-day facility in Lemont. From Illinois, it could continue to Detroit, home to Marathon’s 114,000 barrel-a-day refinery and then to the Sarnia, Ontario market.”

Further reading
BP’s Whiting Refinery a threat to Lake Michigan