Lake Superior: Will it Remain the Most Pristine of the Great Lakes?

Lake Superior: Will it Remain the Most Pristine of the Great Lakes?

By Melissa Malott

Can you help with the letter-writing campaign? Can you help us offset costs with a donation? Do you own or know someone who has property in the Lake Superior area?

In recent years we have seen a revolution in environmental awareness and a dedication to addressing human-caused environmental problems. Federal, state and local governments are working to address greenhouse gas emissions; the Congress is striving to pass Great Lakes restoration funding and legislation; entire industries are working to clean up their operations and protect our water and air.

The petroleum industry is looking to expand development of oil sands. Oil sands, also known as tar sands and bituminous sands, are a heavy form of oil,mixed in with clay and sand. Extraction of oil sands is inefficient and incredibly environmentally destructive; on average, two tons of oil sands are needed tomake one barrel of oil, and in the process wetlands are drained, and forests and vegetation stripped. One of the many toxic by-products of oil sands production is a collection of tailings ponds, chemical slurry lagoons that will never be recoverable and so large you can see them from space with the naked eye. According to the Pembina Institute, each barrel of rawoil sands extracted requires 2-5 barrels of water and between 250-1000 cubic feet of natural gas. Worse yet, because of the intensity of the extraction, upgrading and refinery processes, oil sands have approximately three times the greenhouse gases (GHGs) as conventional oil production.

Of the handful of proposed industry expansion projects, one of themis inWisconsin. Superior’s Murphy Oil refinery is looking at a seven fold increase in size to develop oil sands, fromproduction of 35,000 barrels per day to 235,000 barrels per day. With this, Murphy would increase its energy consumption by 12 times. This expansion would significantly increase the size of the refinery, and Murphy has stated that their proposals involve filling up to 500 acres of wetlands. Furthermore, Murphy is planning to withdraw 5 million gallons per day of water from Lake Superior, approximately 2.5 million of which will be lost to evaporation. While Murphy Oil is preparing an Environmental Impact Assessment, they have not shared any details on increases in air or water pollution.

In exchange for this potentially significant pollution of our air, water, and massive destruction of wetlands, Murphy is promising a $6.2 billion project that will bring a few thousand temporary construction jobs to the Superior area, and will increase Murphy’s labor force by up to 400 permanent, high-paid union positions.

There is no denying that the prospect of 400 new high-wage jobs in Wisconsin is an exciting prospect. But the question for Wisconsinites is about the cost-benefit-analysis: are the ramifications of the proposed Murphy Oil expansion worth the benefits?We don’t yet have all the facts as to the consequences of Murphy’s pollution, but we do know a lot about the history of environmental harm inWisconsin and the real costs to us.

We are learning more about the value of the Great Lakes. While Murphy claims this proposal will improve Wisconsin’s economy, we know that the economic security of the Great Lakes region relies on healthy Great Lakes to drive the multi billion dollar industries of tourism, recreation, shipping, manufacturing, and agriculture, not to mention the high quality of life in the surrounding states and provinces. This enormous economic engine is driven by clean water, not dirty refineries.

An expansion of the refinery would increase that facility’s potential to emit global warming gases, mercury pollution and sulfur dioxide threatening public health and impairing water quality. The Murphy Oil plant expansion would also likely require certain rules and regulations protectingWisconsin’s environment be bypassed or changed, thus opening up other natural areas throughout the state to development or exploitation. Moreover, Murphy Oil has a dismal track record when it comes to environmental compliance. Clean Wisconsin found that in the early 2000s, Murphy was prosecuted for violations of the Clean Air Act, CleanWater Act and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and “withheld information knowingly and intentionally” from the Wisconsin DNR regarding its permits. Their proposed expansion would jeopardize not only the economic value of Lake Superior, but would also threaten our cleanest Great Lake and our way of life. The costs of expansion in terms of public health risks and environmental degradation outweigh the potential return on investment.

Rich with natural resources, Wisconsin has other options to consider. Six billion dollars is the investment amount needed for the expansion. If this same amount was invested in clean, renewable energy technologies, it could create thousands of high-wage, permanent jobs without polluting the lake that drives much of the rest of the region’s economy.

When all the consequences are analyzed, Murphy Oil’s proposal is a bad investment for Wisconsin and the surrounding Lake Superior neighbors. Great Lakes neighbors deserve and can achieve a healthy economy that doesn’t take a toll on public health and our environment.

Can you help with the letter-writing campaign? Can you help us offset costs with a donation? Do you own or know someone who has property in the Lake Superior area?

Tell us your concerns! Your input will help us strengthen our case. As we discuss this case with our legislators and governor, we will share your concerns with them. If Murphy moves forward and applies for permit applications to expand its operations, we will bring your concerns into the administrative and judicial process. Call Melissa Malott at (608) 251-7020 extension 13 or email her at



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