What’s in your tank?

The Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota processes about 320,000 barrels of crude oil per day, most of it from Canada's tar sands.

If you drive a car in the Midwest, odds are pretty good that you’re burning oil from Canada’s tar sands.

That’s what environmental journalist Rick Chamberlin found out as he tried to find a gas station in Wisconsin that didn’t sell gas refined from tar sands oil.

Although he couldn’t supply me with exact figures, Erin Roth, director of the Wisconsin Petroleum Council, told me that most major suppliers of gasoline in Wisconsin sell blends containing well over 50 percent tar sands gasoline, and that many suppliers are as high 80 percent. The Marathon refinery in Minnesota, which supplies fuel to all Marathon stations, including several in Wisconsin, is at 100 percent Canadian crude, according to Roth.

Roth was not able to give me the name of a single distributor or retailer of gasoline in Wisconsin who sells fuel made without tar sands crude. Neither was he able to say how much tar sands crude goes into any one seller’s blend.

The same is true in Minnesota, as Minnesota Public Radio’s Stephanie Hemphill found in June. (The story contains a particularly prescient line referring to the pipeline network that supplies the refinery: “The pipeline occasionally springs a leak, but those spills are usually small and can be cleaned up quickly.” Less that two months later, a pipeline operated by Enbridge, Inc., would spring a leak and dump 800,000 gallons of crude into a Michigan river.)

Depending on whom you ask, our region’s dependence on tar sands oil is either a positive or a negative thing. People who are unconcerned with environmental damage like the fact that our oil comes from a politically stable source. But as both reporters point out, there is a high ecological cost to be paid in return.

The larger point is that it’s virtually impossible to tell exactly where your gasoline comes from, which makes it an exercise in futility to attempt to affect the oil market through consumer choices. To what extent has drilling policy, for instance, been swayed by that handful of people who boycotted BP stations for a few months last summer?

Meaningful reductions in oil consumption will only come about in two ways – decline in economic activity, or regulations to improve fuel economy and reduce vehicle miles traveled. Environmental regulations and renewable fuel standards could have an impact, too, but one study estimates that even under best-case scenarios, biofuels could only replace about one-third of the gasoline we use today.

Photo by Thunderchild7 via Creative Commons

4 thoughts on “What’s in your tank?

  1. Woah hold on a sec! You wrote: “Meaningful reductions in oil consumption will only come about in two ways – decline in economic activity, or regulations to improve fuel economy and reduce vehicle miles traveled.”

    Recession or regulation are our only options? How about changing our values and behavior? Or technology? Bicycles, electric cars???

  2. So far, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Arab oil embargo, the Exxon Valdez, the Iraq war, and the BP oil spill have failed at changing most people’s values and behavior.

    What did you have in mind that’ll work this time?

    I get your point – I ride a bike to work every day. But we’re talking about 250 million vehicles on the road traveling on the order of 3 trillion miles each year. It’s going to take a lot of persuading to get all those folks onto bikes or into electric cars.

    And the point that Chamberlin makes is that, even if you do make a decision to avoid oil from a particular source (Nigeria might be another example), you simply can’t do it through consumer choices alone. You have to give up driving entirely. Even for many diehard environmentalists, that’s a bridge too far.

    Yes, technology and changing behavior is part of the solution. But those things won’t happen without a policy backbone to support them.

  3. Reasonable and well-informed supporters of biofuels know that these cleaner-burning alternative cannot replace all of the gasoline and diesel fuels we consume. Yet a reduction of one-third sounds pretty worthwhile to me.

    I fully understand the big challenges of persuading people to try cleaner alternatives to petroleum — it’s part of my job. That doesn’t mean I won’t stop trying.

    I believe that people have to stop looking for THE soution, the silver bullet breakthrough that solves everything. I don’t believe the answer lies in any one fuel, or engine, or type of vehicle, or mass transporation, or driving less. It’s a combinations of ALL these that will make a difference.

    Sound energy policy is a good thing. But before that will happen, we need to change some more hearts and minds. That happens at the grassroots level, one driver at a time.

    I wish all of us luck as we work toward a common goal.