Canadian Oil Spawns Campaign Against Refinery Pollution

February 22, 2008

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You might recall the showdown environmental groups had with the BP oil refinery in Northwest Indiana last year. They got the company to back off from increasing pollution in Lake Michigan. Now, they're waging a similar fight against nine other Midwestern refineries.

Last year, the Chicago area's green crowd pulled out the stops against BP. Environmentalists argued with regulators over BP's new, more lenient water permit, and like-minded politicians hit the airwaves.

ADVERTISEMENT: I'm Senator Dick Durbin. Our Lake Michigan is a national treasure and a source of drinking water for millions of us that's why Democrats and Republicans…

LEARNER: I think that really tapped public sentiment that we're going in the wrong direction.

Howard Learner directs the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Learner considers last year a success.

LEARNER: Ultimately BP was forced to back off, and BP is now committed to no net increase in water pollution.

And now, Learner's and other environmental groups want to repeat that performance, on a bigger scale. They're simultaneously fighting expansions at nine Midwest oil refineries, from South Dakota to Ohio. Learner says each could increase water and air pollution.

LEARNER: So with these oil refineries having such a major environmental footprint in our region, we want to make sure they're doing the absolute best, state of the art, pollution technology at the beginning rather than later having to come back and saying say oh wait a minute, we somehow missed the boat here, we gotta get it fixed up. That's not gonna fly.

All these refineries have something in common. Like Indiana's BP plant, each wants to refine a heavier, dirtier crude oil that creates more pollution, and all this oil's from the same place.

ROXANNE POTVIN: Oh Canada, our home in native land …

That's right, it's from Canada. I thought I'd ask an oil expert why this is happening.

FLYNN: Phil here, can I help you? Hey, I'm doing good, how are you?

Phil Flynn is often on the phone at Alaron Trading. He analyzes energy markets there.

FLYNN: We're ready to rock…

Flynn says Canada's secret sauce - the thing refiners want - is oil pulled from tar sands.

FLYNN: If you look at the oil sands that are in Canada, some experts estimate there's more oil in the oil sands than there is under Saudi Arabia. And to be honest with you is, the reason why we haven't tapped it earlier is, it's been a very expensive process to do.

But tar sand oil's cheap now.

Flynn says it will increase refinery pollution across the Midwest, but he says the market's gearing up for more Canadian heavy crude anyway.

FLYNN: You know, we want abundant supplies. We want to be able to pull up at the pump, pay a buck fifty a gallon and drive away happlily. But guess what, it doesn't work that way in the real world. Believe me, if the prices get high enough, even environmentalists will be more open to more negotiations.

Environmentalist Howard Learner thinks there's nothing to negotiate. He says there doesn't have to be a trade-off between more pollution and higher gas prices.

LEARNER: There will be oil refinery expansion in the Midwest, but it ought to be clean. Companies like BP, ConocoPhillips, and Murphy Oil America are making billions of dollars in profits. They can take and invest some of those profits, not in ways that increase pollution, but in ways that reduce pollution.

But can you cut pollution and gas prices by keeping corporate profits in check? Some economists doubt it. Here's Northwestern University's Lynne Kiesling.

KIESLING: Regardless of your perception of corporate profits there is a fundamental trade-off between environmental quality and increasing our refinery production.

Kiesling says, when refineries invest in pollution control, they pass costs to customers.

And she says drivers are to blame - the government predicts we'll demand more gasoline for at least another twenty-two years.

KIESLING: The fundamental question from the consumers' side is, how willing and able are you to look for substitutes? Whether it's the short-run substitute of looking for another way to get to work, or a long-run substitute of buying a more economical vehicle.

To be fair, Howard Learner and other environmentalists have preached fuel efficiency for years, but all the while, American wheels kept turning; environmentalists lost the battle against gasoline demand.

But given one victory against refinery pollution, they figure they've got a shot at fighting the consequences of driving.

I'm Shawn Allee, Chicago Public Radio.