David Hoppe

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:: BP is Indiana's problem, too

A big polluter on the lake

By David Hoppe

A week ago I was in Florida, where the ever-widening oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico was local news. People there were bracing for a calamity, the likes of which they never dared imagine. On the Gulf side, they feared losing their fishing and tourism industries. And there was concern that if the oil drifted to the south, it might be picked up by currents below Florida's southern tip and start washing up on beaches along the state's eastern coast as well.

No one in the oil industry will say they saw this coming. There have been ruinous oil spills, but they generally occurred as oil was being transported from one place to another. A deep sea rupture at the source, where oil was being extracted, was - we were told -- practically unheard of.

Offshore oil drilling was considered to be so failsafe that even President Obama felt secure in calling for more of it, reversing his stated position on the issue in order to try and woo Congressional support for climate legislation.

Messing with oil seemed like a relatively innocuous thing to do. Until, that is, oil started messing with us.

It figured that the oil company at the root of the Gulf gusher would be British-based oil giant BP. As Jason Leopold's excellent reporting for the online digest Truthout has shown, BP has been on the wrong end of a litany of safety violations going back almost a decade.

There was a fine levied against a BP drilling rig in 2003 for "failure to follow the procedures established in the Job Safety Analysis (JSA)." In 2004, another BP rig was cited because a "diverted system was not installed as in the approved plan.leading to damage to property and the environment." A 2005 explosion at BP's Texas refinery killed 15 people and injured 170. BP was fined $50 million for that incident and pleaded guilty to a felony. Two oil spills in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay in 2006 resulted in a $20 million fine and a guilty plea to criminal violation of the Clean Water Act.

Leopold writes: "The issues related to the repeated spills in Prudhoe Bay and elsewhere were revealed by more than 100 whistleblowers who, since as far back as 1999, said the company failed to take seriously their warnings about shoddy safety practices and instead retaliated against whistleblowers who registered complaints with superiors."

It was in the midst of all this that Gov. Mitch Daniels stood with BP America's Chairman and President Bob Malone in 2006 to announce the proposed expansion of BP's Whiting refinery on Lake Michigan. "We appreciate BP's choice of Indiana for this massive, landmark project," said Daniels. "The eyes of the whole state are on Northwest Indiana today, as they should be. This marks another huge step in Indiana's economic comeback."

The expansion was being undertaken in advance of BP's plan to begin refining heavy crude oil from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada. Tar sands oil is particularly dirty and the refining process emits a large volume of greenhouse gases.

In 2007, BP asked Daniels and Thomas Easterly, head of the Indiana's Department of Environmental Management, for permission to increase the amount of toxic waste it flushed into the lake. Not long after that, IDEM granted BP an exemption from federal regulations regarding air pollution because BP claimed halving the amount of particulates the refinery emits would not be economically feasible.

Indiana's permissive response to the Whiting refinery expansion raised howls of protest from environmentalists in Northwest Indiana and from elected officials in states on the Lake Michigan coast. These protests forced BP to temporarily back off its Lake Michigan dumping plans, but the soot it is putting in the air remains an issue. In mid April, less than a week before the Gulf crisis began, a group of concerned BP shareholders proposed that BP review environmental risks related to tar sand oil, but that proposal was voted down.

"The resolution failed so it'll have no impact on the project," said a BP spokesperson. "We factored the price of carbon into our projects and Whiting is no exception. The project continues to move forward. We'll have 3,000 on the job this year working on the project." The refinery expansion is due for completion in 2011.

As far as BP is concerned, the potential profits from tar sand oil outweigh the costs of pollution. As far as the Daniels administration is concerned, those 3,000 jobs do, too. Daniels and Easterly have adamantly rejected environmental concerns about the Whiting expansion, insisting there's nothing to worry about and that BP is a solid corporate partner. They insist the project's advantages outweigh any risks.

If all this sounds terribly familiar, it should. Once again BP is at the center of a risky practice involving extracting, transporting and refining oil. Once again, we hear confident voices assuring us that profit is what matters most. The difference is that this BP story is taking place here, in our own backyard. To paraphrase the governor, if the eyes of the entire state aren't on what BP is doing in Northwest Indiana, they should be.