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:: Tar sands oil in Indiana

The protests include us

By David Hoppe

If you get most of your news from mainstream sources, you may not be aware that over 1,000 people were arrested outside the White House between August 20 and September 3. These folks were sending a message to President Obama, imploring him to cancel construction of the Keystone XL pipeline intended to carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada across the length of the United States to Port Arthur, Texas.

Indiana isn't usually mentioned in reporting about Keystone XL. But Hoosiers will be affected by whether the pipeline is built.

The largest inland oil refinery in the United States is located in Whiting, Indiana, on the coast of Lake Michigan. BP, of Gusher in the Gulf fame, owns this refinery and is currently in the midst of a $3.8 billion expansion in order to process the tar sands oil that the Keystone XL pipeline is intended to bring to the United States. This expansion is due to be completed in 2013.

Canadian tar sands oil is estimated to represent the second largest source of crude oil reserves in the world. It has the potential to make Canada the next Saudi Arabia. They call this oil "tar sands," because, over eons, it turned into a thick, tarlike substance enmeshed in quartz sand that was, in turn, embedded in layers of water and clay.

Refining this stuff is a harder, dirtier process than that required with conventional crude oil. Tar sands are heavier and more sulfurous; they have to be diluted with naphtha, a highly volatile natural gas, in order to be liquid enough to flow through a pipeline. The form of naphtha used in this process contains benzene, which is highly carcinogenic.

Drilling on a special 3,400-foot pipeline to carry naphtha under the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal to the BP refinery was announced last June in the Northwest Indiana Times . Construction, by the Oklahoma-based Explorer Pipeline Co., was scheduled to begin in August and last about eight weeks. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the project. A spokesman for the contractor responsible for building the pipeline said it represented a "common construction technique for crossing a waterway."

Let's backtrack a moment. In 2007 and 2008, Indiana's Department of Natural Resources issued permits that would have allowed BP to increase dumping of toxic sludge into Lake Michigan and emissions of such dire stuff as sulfur dioxide, benzene and lead into the air as part of its tar sands expansion project. Protests in both cases led the federal Environmental Protection Agency to overrule Indiana's attempts to let BP have its way.

A new round of negotiations are reportedly in progress to actually reduce BP's emissions, thanks to the installation of new technologies.

But while BP's willingness to try and contain the mess it makes may be reassuring to some, this does nothing to address the larger risk that shipping tar sands oil to Indiana poses to the sustainable health and well-being of our Lake Michigan coast and the Hoosiers who live there.

Given the wretched state of our economy, it's tempting to brush off environmental concerns as a necessary trade-off for prosperity. The BP expansion is touted for creating 5,000 construction jobs and up to 100 permanent positions. What's more, if you travel to Whiting, you'll see how BP has invested in this blue collar town's civic core, helping to make it a disconcertingly pleasant destination, given its immediate proximity to the refinery's vast, air-devouring mass.

Added to that is the prospect of a new, abundant source of oil. Canada's tar sands play like music to a gas junkie's ears, a melody that whispers there's no need to change our ways. Fill 'er up!

But shipping tar sands oil to Indiana is a recipe for a massive overdose. If the already high incidence of cancers found among the people in industrial Northwest Indiana isn't enough to give you pause, the environmental risks inherent in piping this stuff into our state should stop you in your tracks.

"Pipelines leak like crazy," environmentalist Bill McKibben recently told Wired magazine. "The pipeline industry is supposed to be regulating itself, and in the last year that's claimed the Kalamazoo River and a stretch of the Yellowstone River."

The Pipeline Safety Trust, a federally funded nonprofit watchdog group that studied spills between 2002 and 2010, reported that pipelines carrying tar sands oil are more likely to spill because tar sands are grittier, more corrosive, shipped at higher temperatures and under greater pressure than conventional crude.

We live in an era of unintended consequences and public apologies. By now we should be wise to the fact that just because we can do something, like build a supposedly "safe" pipeline to carry an extraordinarily dangerous substance from one place to another, doesn't mean we should. Remember those images of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico? Imagine that happening in Lake Michigan. Indiana is about to take that chance in Whiting.

More tar sands protests are planned around the country, with the hope of compelling President Obama to stop construction of Keystone XL. Major events are planned for October 7 and November 6. Go to www.tarsands.org to learn more.