Commentary: Tar sands expansion poses risk to Great Lakes

Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist and public radio commentator.

Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist and public radio commentator.

By Eric Hansen

Will Lake Superior and the Upper Great Lakes region continue to be the land of sky blue waters? Or will a vast swath of our pristine waters become a fading memory, soiled by the leaks and spills of a massive network of tar sands crude oil pipelines and maritime traffic?

Expanding proposals for more pipeline capacity by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, as well as plans to ship tar sands crude oil across Lake Superior and other Great Lakes, are astonishing in their sheer scale.

For example, Enbridge is currently seeking to nearly double the capacity of its Alberta Clipper pipeline — which runs from Alberta, Canada, through Minnesota to Superior — to 880,000 barrels per day. That pipeline is a key enabler, a head gate for tar sands crude oil expansion projects in Wisconsin and throughout the region.

A regionwide public comment period for a Minnesota permit for that project is currently open, and an overflow crowd attended an April 3 hearing in St. Paul. Wisconsin regulators tabled an earlier permit application for a tar sands crude oil maritime loading dock in Superior after citizens objected.

Earth’s finest collection of fresh water — Lake Superior and the Upper Great Lakes — is not a reasonable location for a major transportation corridor designed to carry tar sands crude oil to the overseas market. If these proposals move forward, our region will be locked into a future of oil-impacted water, air quality and public health.

Tar sands crude oil is notorious for its climate change implications. Asphalt-like in its original form, it requires more energy than typical crude oil to convert it into a usable form. It is also particularly unsuitable for our water-rich region: Unlike conventional crude oil, it sinks after being spilled on water. Whether the spill can be cleaned up has yet to be shown.

Great Lakes history cautions us that shipping interests often externalize costs, the resulting damage is typically massive and long-lasting and the public is left holding the bag. Think of the dynamics of both how zebra mussels, sea lampreys and Asian carp became serious issues and why the threats were not addressed in a timely manner.

Due diligence is in order. Has our state and region done a systematic in-depth analysis of the broad implications of the tar sands proposals? Or are we, one piecemeal permit application at a time, lurching toward a future sprinkled with crude oil mishaps?

April 20 marks the fourth anniversary of the BP Gulf of Mexico fiasco, a vivid reminder of industrial overconfidence meeting reality.

Three months after the initial BP incident, our nation’s largest inland crude oil spill began on July 25, 2010. Just 150 miles east of Milwaukee, an Enbridge pipeline break poured 840,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Despite multiple alarms, 17 hours passed before Enbridge shut down the pipeline.

Today, the Kalamazoo River spill cleanup is still incomplete, with a price tag passing the billion-dollar mark.

“It will be very difficult to give Enbridge creditability going forward on any pipeline project,” the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board noted on July 11, 2012.

Given Enbridge’s record, why is the company allowed to propose a large, risk-filled expansion of its operations?

Now is the time to speak up for clean water and common sense.

Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist and public radio commentator.

4 thoughts on “Commentary: Tar sands expansion poses risk to Great Lakes

  1. Hello: Michigan residents, those that know or have heard of Enbridge, lack confidence in their ability after the infamous Kalamazoo River impact. The cleanup is still going on. However, we all need oil and can’t perpetually live in the “not in my backyard” world. The fact is pipelines are the safest ways to transport petroleum as compared to truck or rail transport alternatives. Think about human safety. Truck and rail accidents have resulted in injury and death. In general, pipeline leaks have not resulted in injury or death since they are underground. From a practical point of view, pipelines are the way to go to protect human health.

    Due diligence is being performed in the manner of “learning by experience.” The Kalamazoo Spill has taught harsh lessons that are resulting in improvements ( While we may not believe there are enough improvements, it can’t be denied that we need petroleum products to maintain our livelihoods. We have to just keep on watching over the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and ensure the improvements are the best.

  2. Michigan Mark didn’t mention how “it can’t be denied that these people need petroleum products to maintain their (cancerous) livelihood”: “Levels of contaminants higher than in some of the world’s most polluted cities have been found downwind of Canada’s largest oil, gas and tar sands processing zone, in a rural area where men suffer elevated rates of cancers linked to such chemicals.” (from “”.)

  3. The commenter above is relaying Ebridge’s corporate communications strategy. My aunt worked there and this is what she says word for word.

    1 Enbridge has not learned it’s lesson. They’ve had numerous spills and safety violations since the Kalamazoo spill, including violations involving their safety shutdown systems.

    2 The big push behind all these new pipelines is not to meet domestic supply in Canada or the United States. It is to increase exports and in fact drive up domestic prices. Canada’s resource minister has admitted that his and the industry are working to drive prices up by building export infrastructure.

    “It is never smart to have one customer,” Mr. Oliver said in an interview here. “The US is going to need less of our energy and they are also paying us at significant discount to international prices.”

    3 Canada’s plan to triple tar sands production is inconsistent with efforts to stop changing the climate. Canada has shamefully reneged on their co2 reduction commitments because the tar sands alone represent 3/4 of the North America’s share of remaining emissions if we are to hold warming under 2 celcius.

    The Enbridge talking points are factually bankrupt. We have no interest in hosting their pipelines just to have higher gas prices and accelerate climate change. Resources like the Great Lakes are our precious heritage to future generations that must not be despoiled just for short term greed. Not in my backyard? Of course not. And not in our Great Lakes or anywhere else!

  4. We do NOT need to be exporting, especially if raises our gas prices- we SHOULD be utilizing clean energy which is already available, and it should be FREE, as Tesla pointed out, it is available to all of us. Nobody owns the and the wind.