Keep Tar Sands Oil Out of Lake Michigan



Chicago Beach Water Poster
By Sean Benham from Chicago (Protect Lake Michigan! Uploaded by Gary Dee) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

We don’t need a tar sands crude oil pipeline to pollute Lake Michigan, for there are plenty of crude oil refineries around the Lakes and a plan to ship the strip-mined, carbon-intensive, dangerous crude in tankers across our freshwater seas. The Whiting refinery oil spill, while apparently small, is a warning to us all.

Here’s what we know about the recent BP oil leak into Lake Michigan near Chicago.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, anywhere between 378 and 756 gallons of oil leaked from British Petroleum’s Whiting, Indiana refinery. This refinery recently underwent a $4 billion expansion in order to process the toxic tar sands bitumen now being mined in Alberta, Canada. Prevailing northerly winds seem to have fortunately pushed the oil into shore near the refinery where it is being cleaned up.

Two U.S. senators from Illinois, Mike Kirk (R) and Dick Durbin (D), wrote to the CEO of BP America asking for a meeting to discuss “the long-term safety and reliability” of the refinery.

There are nine U.S. refineries on or near the Great Lakes (eight Canadian) capable of processing tar sands crude oil and there is serious talk of shipping this heavy crude from Superior, WI across the Great Lakes. Tar sands crude is highly toxic and, unlike regular oil, does not float on the surface, making a clean up far more difficult and perhaps impossible. The Alliance for the Great Lakes issued a report  late last year saying the U.S. must improve its “oil-spill prevention and response policies” in light of the threat posed by shipping tar sands crude oil.

A Canadian social justice/environmental group, The Council of Canadians, just released a report concluding that any shipping of tar sands oil (and other “extreme” sorts of energy by-products like nuclear waste and toxic fracking wastewater) over the Great Lakes is just plain stupid and we shouldn’t let it happen. I stand with the Canadians. Our Great Lakes, remember, are more than just oceanic highways for ships– they are a source of drinking water, recreation, beauty and food for many and three of them– Lakes Michigan, Erie and Ontario–are already highly stressed by human activities.

Of course, the oil pipelines that carry tar sands crude are part of the problem. Two oil pipelines, now 60 years old, already carry tar sands oil beneath the Straits of Mackinac that links Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The National Wildlife Federation explains the threat these pipes pose:

“The pipeline crossing the Straits of Mackinac, and near some of the region’s best trout streams, is one of the biggest in the Midwest in terms of volume, and it’s now carrying more oil than ever. Enbridge Partners recently began pumping 10 percent more oil through Line 5 by boosting the horsepower in pumps along the route, according to company officials. The company also has proposed a series of small pipeline projects that will result in a system-wide expansion, allowing Enbridge to ship dilbit [tar sands crude] from Alberta to Maine, much of it via the Straits of Mackinac, where the pipeline load will increase by 1.8 million gallons daily.

Such increases in volume likely would have generated little public concern prior to 2010, but the political landscape changed that year after an Enbridge Partners pipeline ruptured in southern Michigan and dumped about 1 million gallons of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River. That disaster was the largest inland oil spill ever in the lower 48 states, sickening more than 300 people, killing an undetermined number of fish and birds and perhaps disrupting the river ecosystem for decades. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) fined Enbridge a record $3.7 million for that mess. Cleanup, still in progress, will cost an estimated $1 billion.”

The Council of Canadians is now calling for a “No pipelines, no tankers” energy policy for the Great Lakes and Canada that carry tar sands bitumen. It’s not merely the Keystone XL pipeline we in Wisconsin and the U.S. need to be concerned about. This piece by Tara Lohan on Bill Moyer’s website documents five other crude oil pipelines and the actual and potential harm that now exists from them.  In the summer of 2012 two ruptures of oil pipes were reported in Adams and Washington County in Wisconsin, and more piping of crude oil through Wisconsin has been discussed as well.

A major crude oil pipe failure under the Great Lakes or a major spill from a tanker carrying tar sands crude would be an environmental and human disaster we cannot risk. We in the Great Lakes states and provinces, we international citizens of the Great Lakes Basin, need to make clear that fossil fuel from the desecration of Alberta’s boreal forest helped along with Milwaukee-made machines, should not trump the practical and spiritual value of our inland seas.

Postscript: See also this good piece on shipping tar sands crude oil from

 P.S. II— To sign a petition against the shipping of tar sands and other dangerous substances by ship or pipeline “on, under or near” the Great Lakes, visit The Council of Canadians website.

P.S. III– Yet another tar sands oil report (“The Toxic Waters of the Tar Sands Industry”), this time from the Sierra Club on the effects of the tar sands industry on water.

UPDATE (3/29)– Spill amount has now been updated to 15 to 39 barrels, or as much as 1600 or so gallons of oil.

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