The Freshwater Lab, a program of the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has hosted a year-long series exploring the oil-water mix in the Great Lakes. Next Tuesday, April 19, is the final event, titled The Refined State: Tar Sands, Pet Coke, and the Front Lines of Great Lakes Oil Cities. I’m very excited to be presenting (thanks Rachel Havrelock for organizing and inviting me) and will discuss our region’s complex and inconsistent approach to oil, from drilling to transport to refinement.
The Great Lakes region has significant oil resources that would be economically and technologically accessible through drilling in the Great Lakes, but with strong public opposition to drilling, it is mostly prohibited by both American states and Canadian provinces and the respective federal governments. The region is also a central part of the North American pipeline system for distribution and transport. After the Enbridge pipeline rupture decimated the Kalamazoo River in 2010, public attention has focused on the risk of pipeline failures, and existing and new pipeline proposals are under increased scrutiny and facing more legal opposition. Finally, the region is a hub for oil refining, building more capacity to process tar sands crude. While the law reflects public opposition to drilling, and legal fights over pipeline transport are building with public concern, the public and legal system have been slower to respond to the health risks of refining. Recent fights over pet coke storage in Detroit give some reason for hope, but the as the costs are disproportionally born by minority and poor communities, environmental justice has not been achieved. The Great Lakes region must protect all citizens from the harms of oil production, at every stage, for the system to be both effective and just.