Tar sands oil gives coal some competition for the title of dirtiest fuel. From mining to refining to burning, tar sands oil is an environmental disaster. The Great Lakes is becoming a center for refining imported tar sands oil, which comes from western Canada. As a result, refinery pollution is threatening our water and our communities. BP’s Whiting Refinery on the shores of Lake Michigan in Indiana has become a focal point in the legal fight to stop tar sands pollution in the region. Environmental groups scored a victory earlier this month when the EPA objected to an Indiana permit for air pollution from the refinery. Meleah Geertsma, an attorney and public health expert with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago, was involved in the fight against the air pollution from the tar sands refinery, and wrote this guest post on the victory and what it means in the fight against tar sands pollution in the Great Lakes.
On October 16, in a move that could significantly improve air quality for the Great Lakes region, the U.S. EPA sent a clear message to the oil industry that the federal agency is serious about air pollution from refining – especially the processing of dirty Canadian tar sands crude. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on that day issued an order objecting to a permit granted by Indiana to BP’s Whiting Refinery, located on the shores of Lake Michigan. At the heart of Administrator Jackson’s order is a concern that numerous potential sources of air pollution are going uncounted and uncontrolled. And that the industry is ignoring or downplaying the air pollution impacts of processing the much heavier, dirtier Canadian tar sands crude, a crude that contains high levels of sulfur and toxic metals.
The BP operating permit was issued to enable a significant increase in the processing of heavy tar sands crude at BP’s Whiting, Indiana facility. However, the permit allowed BP to expand without installing so-called “best available control technology,” on the premise that increases in air pollution from the expansion would be balanced by decreases in pollution from the existing refinery. Such a trade-off of increases and decreases is referred to in air permitting as “netting.”
In response, several environmental groups and individual citizens filed a petition with U.S. EPA, asking the agency to object due to BP’s and the agency’s failure to count numerous potential sources of increased air pollution. Among these sources are increased operations of certain equipment needed to process larger amounts of Canadian crude, as well as greater levels of sulfur and toxics in the crude itself.
The extraction of Canadian tar sands oil is a hugely destructive act. All wetlands must be drained, rivers diverted, and trees and vegetation stripped from the land. The heavy crude is then taken from the land in a strip-mining process where hydraulic shovels tear into and remove the surface land. Crude existing at lower levels is extracted by pumping high pressure steam into the earth. Since the crude is too thick to flow through pipelines, it must be processed in another step that uses immense quantities of water and energy. The drastic effects on local landscapes are long-lasting, as very little land directly affected by the process has been restored to a level equivalent to the pre-mining land capabilities, and virtually no reclamation efforts occur for the first 20-30 years of a project. Moreover, tar sands extraction produces significant threats to local public health – from air pollution that results from mining and toxics that get into local water supplies. These impacts have caused grave environmental justice concerns, as they occur on or near tribal lands.
Canadian tar sands extraction and processing also are large contributors to global warming, resulting in more greenhouse gases than processing of traditional crudes. The BP Whiting expansion alone would result in an additional 1.5 to 2 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, or as much greenhouse gas pollution as a new medium sized coal plant. Concerns about the local and more global impacts prompted the U.S. Conference of Mayors to pass a resolution in 2008 against using tar sands oil, as well as to send a letter to President Obama urging him to move U.S. energy policy away from tar sands oil.
While these land and greenhouse impacts have been widely discussed in the media, air pollution associated with expanding Canadian tar sands crude refining capacity has gone largely unnoticed. The EPA objection is a catalyst that has opened up the conversation, making the front page of the Chicago Tribune.
In addition to its significance for tar sands refining, the EPA objection signals a strong agency intent to better understand and quantify sources of air pollution at refineries. Refineries are highly complex industrial sources with numerous pieces of equipment. This equipment can produce air pollution either directly from its operation, as with a coker where depressurization of the drums and cutting out of coke produces various emissions, or in the form of fugitive emissions (from leaks, valves, hinges, etc.). In the past decade, advances have been made in the ability to detect and measure these emissions. Numerous tests using DIAL (for “Differential Absorption Lidar”) and other technologies have already occurred at refineries overseas, in Canada, and here in the U.S. Such tests, along with other means for estimating emissions, contribute to our better understanding refinery air pollution. The EPA objection takes the stand that we must fully use our capabilities to estimate and control the air pollution from refineries, and industry can no longer hide behind unsupported claims that pollution cannot be estimated or will be minimal or non-existent. While there will be much work ahead to implement the objection in this case and in the future, the environmental community applauds EPA’s move.