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Oil shipments on the Great Lakes, now and to come

Are 400-foot-long barges on the Great Lakes, each carrying 118,000 barrels of tar sands oil, in our future?


While it appears that U.S.-based Calumet Specialty Products Partners has at least temporarily paused its plans to construct a terminal on the western tip of Lake Superior near its Superior, Wisconsin refinery to ship heavy Canadian and light Bakken crude oil on the Great Lakes, the threat remains very real.

Calumet did not experience a sudden epiphany about the foolhardiness of shipping oil on the Great Lakes, but rather it encountered a lack of investment partners for the project at this time. The company is still pursuing the permits needed for this project, should the capital for it become available in the near future. And given the discussion about this type of proposal in business journals, it’s very possible that another company with deeper pockets may pick up on a plan like this.

In fact, another company had looked at shipping oil via Lake Erie a year before Calumet announced their plans.

As fights against pipelines intensify and the construction of these arteries become more difficult due to public concern, we’ve seen that movement by rail is increasingly an option for corporations. But given profit is their bottom line, it’s important to note that shipping oil via the Great Lakes is cheaper. Calumet had calculated that it would cost $3.50 a barrel to ship oil on the Great Lakes compared to $9.00 a barrel by rail. That’s a dangerous equation for those of us who see the Great Lakes as a commons, not as a tar sands and fracked oil shipping route.

And it’s important to recognize that there are already petroleum shipments taking place on the Great Lakes. The Superior Telegram has reported, “In 2010, 3.7 million tons of oil and petroleum products were shipped either to or from U.S. Great Lakes ports, and much more that moved only between Canadian ports, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A large amount of petroleum currently moves on Lake Superior through Thunder Bay, Ontario, by Great Lakes tankers. And millions of gallons of gasoline refined in Illinois are shipped out of Green Bay to move across Lake Michigan every year.”

Additionally, we need to be aware that some in the business sector are also talking about “river barge transportation” for tar sands and Bakken oil, including the suggestion of “a navigable waterway between Lakes Winnipeg and Superior.”

The argument is that, “a future waterway connection between Lakes Superior and Winnipeg would connect into the American inland waterway system at Chicago and at Cleveland, with future prospects of moving much bulk freight between Western Canada and the Central regions of the USA (as well as Eastern Canada and Northeastern USA).”

Other inland waterway transportation route ideas include, “barge trains may carry oil to a terminal on the Beaufort Sea following modifications to the Peace, Slave and Athabasca Rivers,” “a navigable waterway connection between Saskatchewan and Hudson Bay,” and “a series of nearby lakes and rivers that could allow for a future waterway connection between the Reindeer/Churchill Rivers through to Lake Athabasca and the Athabasca River that flows into the McKenzie, with access into the Beaufort Sea.”

Canada has 3,000 kilometres of inland waterways and a federal government that has gutted water protection and put tar sands extraction and export at the top of its agenda.

For the sake of water justice and a sustainable future, these are matters that require our attention and opposition.