Tar Sands and the Great Lakes

Tar Sands and the Great Lakes

by Gary Street and Cheryl Kallio

What do Marshall, Michigan; Mayflower, Arkansas; and Parkers Prairie, Minnesota all have in common? They have pipelines carrying tar sands oil through their community and have had a break in the pipeline, causing spills and harming resources.

Tar sands oil (commonly called dilbit or bituminous sands) comes from an unconventional petroleum deposit made up of loose sand or naturally occurring mixture of sand, clay and water saturated with a dense and sticky form of petroleum. This type of oil is a threat to our lakes, rivers, wetlands and streams, because it is heavier than water, sinking to the bottoms of waterways when leaks occur.

The pipelines in the Great Lakes were not constructed to transport this type of oil. It is heavy, requiring a much higher pressure to move. In addition, many of these pipelines are over 60 years old, and likely weakened by corrosion.

Pipelines lay across the Great Lakes Region. Not all carry tar sands oil. However, knowing about the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill of nearly one million gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, proved transportation of tar sands oil through Great Lakes pipelines does exist. Companies such as Enbridge appear they are positioning to expand the transportation of tar sands oil far beyond their current capacity.

If there is concern with the pipelines, are there other ways to transport tar sands? A proposed refinery on the shores of Lake Superior would allow Enbridge to expand transportation of 13 billion gallons of tar sands oil on oil tankers. Experience tells us that ships are not any safer than pipelines and would leave our precious waters that hold 20% of the Earth’s fresh surface water vulnerable.

How are we protecting our waters? By taking action NOW. Freshwater Future, along with 48 other groups, seized a limited opportunity to provide comments to the U.S. Department of State on an environmental impact statement for one of the pipelines crossing the Great Lakes.

You can help too! Make sure you are signed up to receive our emails and we’ll keep you informed about opportunities to push for stronger regulations, reviews of pipeline expansions, and status of a refinery and tar sands oil shipping on our Great Lakes.



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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.