As tar sands extraction continues and proposals for expanded pipelines from Canada into the U.S. form a backdrop, the Great Lakes themselves could become the next frontier for moving crude oil to a vast Midwest refinery network.
A critical choice
The region faces a critical choice about whether the Great Lakes should become a thoroughfare for tar sands crude shipping, warns this Alliance special report. The report finds that neither the Great Lakes shipping fleet nor its ports were designed to ship tar sands crude over the Great Lakes, and cites serious gaps in the region’s oil-spill prevention and response policies.
“We’re at a crossroads now, with companies starting to seek permits for new oil terminals,” says the Alliance’s Lyman Welch, the report’s lead author. “Before our region starts sinking money into shipping terminals for the Great Lakes, our task should be to ask ‘if’ rather than ‘when.’”
Are regulators prepared?
The report’s authors probe deeply into whether regulators tasked with overseeing the health of the world’s largest body of surface freshwater are prepared to safeguard the Great Lakes from a potential tar sands crude spill, and to direct a cleanup should disaster strike. They cite the following shortcomings:
• A U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security report on spill-response protocols for submerged oil found current methods for locating and recovering submerged oil inadequate.
• A “Worst-Case Discharge” scenario developed by the Coast Guard involves a Great Lakes vessel carrying a type of oil that is much different, and less damaging to the environment, than tar sands crude.
• Limited resources are available to learn about the risk of oil spills by vessels and oil-spill management in the region; most information about spills is outdated or discontinued.
“The current regulatory net has far too many holes,” the report says. “The regulatory and response framework for petroleum shipping on the Great Lakes is not fully up to the task of protecting the lakes from spills today, and is certainly not an adequate starting point from which to consider the viability of tar sands crude shipment by vessel.”
Strengthen spill response efforts now
Noting the Great Lakes provide more than 40 million people with drinking water, the report stresses the importance of strengthening efforts now to prevent a potential Great Lakes oil spill.
Among its recommendations are that the U.S. improve coordination among federal agencies involved in large-scale spill prevention and response, with a special emphasis on tar sands crude and other “submerged” oil spills. The report also calls on Congress to increase funding for prevention, preparedness and response programs, and on Great Lakes states to expand and enhance state laws to prevent and better protect their shorelines from oil-shipping spills.
For their part, tar sands crude shippers should improve safety and maintain spill-prevention and response equipment, the report says.
“The movement of oil across water increases the risks of oil in water, a clash in which the environment is the loser,” the report states. “We must preface our choice of whether to ship tar sands crude by vessel with proactively improving our oil-spill prevention and response policies. The health of the Great Lakes is at risk unless we take swift action.“