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VIEW: Tar sands refineries threaten the Great Lakes, says Israelson

Policy analyst David Israelson writes in the Toronto Star that, “There’s ever-increasing pressure to supply the oil-thirsty U.S. with more product from Alberta’s tar sands. The Great Lakes are at the receiving end of a large and growing pollution delivery system—a network of pipelines and refineries that take the oil from the tar sands to the U.S. heartland for processing. (Apart from concerns about a pipeline leak spilling into the Great Lakes, there is) another threat, poorly understood and poorly measured, from emissions at the refineries all around the Great Lakes.”

“Emissions from Wisconsin, Indiana (near Chicago), Michigan and elsewhere end up falling as toxic rain into Canadian water. The biggest refinery in the region, in Whiting, Indiana, happens to be a BP facility. …There is already a vast network of pipeline extensions and proposed extensions leading from Fort McMurray (the oil sands region) to refineries at the tips of lakes Superior, Michigan and Erie.”

“The most controversial refinery is BP’s in Whiting, a 119-year-old facility the company is spending nearly $4 billion to modernize. Indiana authorities had issued a permit to BP to increase its discharges into the Great Lakes, but this raised the ire of then-Illinois Senator Barrack Obama and then-Chicago Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (now President Obama’s chief of staff). Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered BP to back off; the EPA wants to review the air permits issued by Indiana.”

“But the refinery could still be a big problem for the Great Lakes. The problem is that even when they get regulated, there a number of ways that oil refineries go about ‘gaming the system’–fixing the numbers for air emissions so they seem lower than what is really spewing out. …We also don’t know enough about what noxious air emissions do to the Great Lakes when they rise up, condense into clouds and then blow around and fall on us as toxic rain.”

“Canada is caught in a bind. We supply the oil to this pollution delivery system, yet we have little to say about how our neighbours refine it, and what that means for our own waters. Should we demand the highest emission standards for refineries in the U.S. – standards that we wouldn’t meet ourselves? Who would listen? Or should our federal and provincial governments push harder to have oil companies do more refining on our side of the border?”

“The International Joint Commission that oversees Canada-U.S. waters raised the emissions issue three years ago, but then… not much. The federal government has been unfocused and inattentive to this issue, and the Ontario government has also been remarkably quiet.”

The op-ed can be read at http://www.thestar.com/business/article/859347–refinery-emissions-could-pollute-our-water.

As noted in the June 4, 2010 campaign blog ‘UPDATE: Multiplicity of threats to the Great Lakes’ at http://canadians.org/campaignblog/?p=3796:

The Michigan Messenger recently reported that, “BP’s Whiting oil refinery, on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana, is the nation’s fourth largest refinery and is in the process of a $3.8 billion dollar expansion project aimed at boosting its capacity to process oil from the Canadian tar sands.” That article highlights, “The plant’s un-permitted modifications have resulted in a significant increase in nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter less than 10 microns emissions at a major pollution source in an area that already has very poor air quality, EPA said. The agency warned that these emissions contribute to acid rain…”

The Canwest News Service reported in October 2008 that, “The development of a pipeline network and refineries around the Great Lakes to process Alberta bitumen ‘could cause irreversible’ environmental damage to the region, says a new report that traces the tendrils of Alberta’s oilsands developments across the continent. There are currently 17 refinery projects either being ‘considered, planned, applied for, approved or developed’ around the Great Lakes, according to a report (commissioned by the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre), How the Oil Sands Got to the Great Lakes. The report warns that little is known about the environmental impact on the Great Lakes given the level of greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption that comes with the refining process.”

The report notes that the refineries use millions of litres of water every day.

Israelson’s How the Oil Sands Got to the Great Lakes report can be read at http://www.powi.ca/pdfs/events/2008-10-08-how_the_oil_sands.pdf.