Planting a tree does not excuse your oil habit

Planting a tree does not excuse your oil habit On July 25, a pipeline broke and spilled nearly one million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. It is the worst spill in Michigan history and experts say it will it be years before the area can support native plants, wildlife, migratory birds and human recreational activity. While small in comparison to the Gulf oil disaster, the Kalamazoo spill represents one dot in a pervasive pattern of mismanagement and disregard in the oil and gas industry. A new report from the National Wildlife Federation catalogues how the pursuit of oil has contributed to hundreds of deaths, explosions, spills, toxic emissions and habitat loss over the past decade.

The report, “Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit," chronicles incidents from around the country that were often too small to make the evening news but were devastating to the communities and individuals involved. From leaking underground tankers to BP's falsified inspections to the deaths of campers who unwittingly parked above unstable pipelines, the report reveals how millions of gallons of oil have been spilled since the year 2000 and also tells the story of the people affected by these incidents, serving as a reminder that these numbers have faces and names.

In 2005, a BP oil refinery explosion killed 15 workers and injured another 170 people. Investigators cited contributing factors as aging infrastracture, overzealous cost cutting, inadequate design and risk blindness. Today, the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced that BP Products North America Inc. will finally pay $50.6 million in penalties for the incident and failure to follow up on safety measures.

Poor media coverage, aggressive PR and the threat of litigation have kept many of these incidents out of the spotlight. According to the same report, oil and gas companies have spent $38 million lobbying Congress this year, and have already given $13.9 million in direct political contributions to members of Congress. To combat future spills, the authors of the report recommend fighting for legislation to hold companies accountable for their actions, enforce stricter monitoring and eliminate caps on fees to reflect the actual costs in damages, as well as make the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts apply to the oil and gas industry.

Enbridge Liquids Pipelines, Inc. shuttles oil from western Canada to refineries in the United States and owns the pipeline that leaked into the Kalamazoo River. The company has earned awards from Canada's Top 100 Employers of 2010 and Corporate Knights Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations for its environmental iniatives. The company sponsors wind energy projects, provides reusable stainless steel water bottles to all employees, obtains some of its energy from a hybrid fuel cell power plant and works with nonprofits like Tree Canada to replace habitats impacted by its operations. "Enbridge's experience, commitment to environmental protection and health and safety excellence, and technological expertise is behind all of the company's infrastructure and operations," states the company website. However, the fact remains that the company deals in the mining, transportation and usage of oil - an inherently unsustainable, energy-intensive resource.

“To hear the news of another environmental disaster so soon after the tragedy in the Gulf is heart-breaking. How many oil spills, decimated ecosystems, and broken communities will we endure before we understand the true cost of carbon?" Illinois Congressman Mike Quiqley said in a statement following the Kalamazoo spill. "Today we have been presented with still more compelling evidence of why we cannot continue to use fossil fuels as a crutch, and must commit to a clean energy economy.”

Canada is the second largest supplier of oil to the United States behind Saudi Arabia. Its oil is "heavy sour" crude, which means it is rich in contaminants like sulfur and requires chemical additives to run smoothly through pipelines, and it is commonly extracted from the arboreal forests of Alberta. According to Ann Alexander, senior attorney for the Chicago office of the National Resources Defense Council, processing oil from the tar sands of Canada contributes to deforestation, air and water pollution and excessive water consumption. BP is currently pushing to expand its refinery in Whiting, Indiana in order to process greater amounts of this oil. At a meeting in NRDC's Chicago office on August 10, Alexander described how BP provided false accounts of its refinery's pollution while the government of Indiana failed to require a review of alternatives to dumping in Lake Michigan. BP, according to Whiting's mayor Joe Stahura in a WBEZ interview, represents approximately 50 percent of the city's tax base, which means half of all public services, facilities and salaries are paid for by the oil giant.

Alexander challenged the assumption that a win for the environment would mean a loss for the local economy. "Clean energy will create jobs," said Alexander. "To do it right, you need more people." Workers will be needed in constructing, monitoring, regulating and repairing systems before damages lead to spills and explosions.

The expansion project at the BP refinery in Whiting requires two Clear Air Act permits, one for construction and one for operation, and one Clean Water Act permit. The NRDC has challenged those permits and petitioned the United States Environmental Protection Agency to require the permits to be rewritten with an accurate account of BP's emissions. The company is currently in the process of rewriting these.

Enbridge is moving to expand its own operations in Alberta. The company seeks to lay down new pipelines and states it will continue to work with local communities, environmental scientists and aboriginal residents to make sure everyone's voice is heard. For those communities without a voice, a photograph of untouched forests laid beside a photograph of tar sands, where oil has been extracted from the forests, speaks volumes. If Enbridge is truly the leader in safety and technology, what does that say about the rest of the industry?

Meanwhile, workers and volunteers in Michigan are scrubbing turtles with toothbrushes and waiting for answers.


There's no doubt we need to hold BP and industry in general responsible for clean up after accidents and more importantly prevent repeats in the future.  However, like it or not, the life style we live is the true root cause.  The BP Whiting expansion includes well over 1 billion dollars in new pollution control technology and they've since publicly volunteered to keep within current pollution discharge limits to the lake even though their new permit allows more.  As a licensed engineer and avid fisherman / user of the lake, take my word we should be a lot more concerned with Asian Carp and municipal sewer discharges.  It's real convenient for Chicago politicians to keep attention on BP Whiting. 

You raise a great point. Sewer discharge is a pervasive problem, and Asian Carp pose a significant threat to the lake. Unlike oil, the introduction of an invasive species will alter the ecosystem drastically and permanently. We have the ability to protect the lake from these threats if we commit to changing the way we treat our water, closing the canals and enforcing regulations, among other actions. Sadly, policy-makers seem to be choosing short-term earnings over the long-term health of our natural resources.