Oil and Water: Great Lakes Region at a Crossroads
As tar sands extraction continues and proposals for expanded pipelines from Canada into the U.S. form a backdrop, the Great Lakes themselves could become the next frontier for moving crude oil to a vast Midwest refinery network.As companies jockey to take advantage of the demand for this unique and significantly cheaper crude, pressures are mounting to find economical ways to move it out — and Great Lakes vessel shipping is emerging as a contender. Already, plans are in the works to dramatically increase the flow of tar sands crude to the Midwest as early as next year; permitting is sought for a $25 million loading dock on Lake Superior to ship the crude in 2015; and a tar sands shipping route has been mapped across the waters of the Great Lakes.
This week, we released Oil and Water: Tar Sands Crude Shipping Meets the Great Lakes?, a report that probes deeply into whether regulators tasked with overseeing the health of the world's largest body of surface freshwater are prepared to safeguard the Great Lakes from a potential tar sands crude spill, and to direct a cleanup should disaster strike. The report finds that neither the Great Lakes shipping fleet nor its ports were designed to ship tar sands crude over the Great Lakes, and cites serious gaps in the region's oil-spill prevention and response policies.
Western Michigan residents learned firsthand the risk of mixing tar sands oil with water in 2010 after a cataclysmic pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo River. Three years and $1 billion-plus worth of cleanup later, more than 20 percent of the oil spill remains at the bottom of the river: a heavy, viscous muck synonymous with this form of crude oil.
The Great Lakes provide more than 40 million people with drinking water, and the movement of oil across that water increases the risks of oil in water — a clash in which we and our lakes are the losers.
Our task should be to ask 'if' rather than 'when.' Our region faces a critical choice about whether the Great Lakes should become a thoroughfare for tar sands crude shipping. We need to pause for breath and decide which fork in the road leads to a healthy Great Lakes.
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