Repeat offender: BP, dirty oil, reckless behavior, and absent watchdogs in the Midwest


So it seems that the first phase of the Gulf spill nightmare is over.  BP appears, for now, to have successfully capped the well.   Yet even as the destruction from Big Oil winds down in the Gulf, it is steadily ramping up here in the Midwest, with no end in sight.  And once again, an unholy alliance of BP and lax government regulators is playing a lead role.  The damage may be less visible than the Gulf spill, but it is deeply troubling nonetheless, and reflects all of the problems that underlie the spill:  cost-cutting at the expense of safety, a government agency protecting industry rather than the public, short-sighted addiction to dirty oil and BP reaping enormous profits while dumping huge environmental costs onto a local community.

Here in Chicago’s back yard, BP is busily expanding its Whiting, Indiana petroleum refinery to allow it to take more crude extracted from the Canadian “tar sands.”  Tar sands are deposits of thick oily goo called bitumen contained in a layer of earth located below an area of forest in northern Alberta about the size of Florida.  Getting at this bitumen, which can be processed into crude oil, requires stripping away (or breaking apart) the forest to get at the oil underneath, melting it out of the ground using almost unimaginable amounts of energy and water, spewing out massive global warming pollution (three times more than with conventional crude oil), and then polluting the water with the toxic leftovers.  The product that is extracted is far dirtier than conventional crude, meaning that refining it releases a lot more pollution into surrounding communities.  It is being shipped to the Midwest through a vast and growing network of pipelines, which – as we saw very recently on the Kalamazoo River – are prone to repeated spills.

Our environmental laws are designed to ensure that whenever a project is planned that will increase pollution, the best pollution control technologies must be researched and employed.

Here, however, rather than springing just a bit of its vast profits to obey the law, BP chose to skirt it instead. The State of Indiana was only too eager to help them.  In 2007, Indiana gave BP a permit to discharge significantly more ammonia and toxic sludge into Lake Michigan – the region’s drinking water supply – despite Clean Water Act regulations prohibiting increased pollution into clean water when there are alternatives available (which there are).   After a public outcry, BP claimed to back down and agreed not to use the additional license to discharge in its new permit – but refused to actually modify that permit.  And now, more than two years into construction, we have heard only deafening silence from the company about how they are going to prevent the increased pollution.

Similarly, in applying for their air permits, BP made the remarkable claim that the expansion project would actually reduce air pollution – a claim that NRDC has shown to be based on little more than funny math and wishful thinking.  It is clear, in fact, that air pollution from the refinery is going to increase significantly – and with it the health risks to the surrounding communities in Whiting and Gary.  These communities will be breathing in pollution like sulfur and soot that we know to trigger asthma and heart and lung problems; and suffering along with the rest of us the consequences of global warming.  The State of Indiana, rather than questioning BP’s deception, simply handed the company a permit with none of the pollution controls required by law to control a pollution increase.  Fortunately, the federal EPA saw through the game and granted NRDC’s and others’ petition to send Indiana back to the drawing board to take into account the air pollution BP had tried to ignore.

The parallels here to the Gulf spill are striking; and the lessons we need to learn are in many ways the same. 

First, we need to learn to build stronger government institutions that will genuinely protect the public interest, rather than the interests of polluting corporations.  In the Gulf spill, we saw that the Minerals Management Service had a cozy and often corrupt relationship with oil companies drilling in the Gulf, and failed to demand that these companies address the environmental hazards of drilling and spend money on safety and environmental protection.  In Whiting, we saw the Indiana Department of Environmental Management allowing BP to hide its pollution increases, and refusing to make BP follow the law and control its pollution.  In both cases, BP sharply cut corners and pinched pennies to maximize its profits because the regulators let them.  We have to put a stop to that.  The public deserves better from its government.

Second, we see in both cases oil company propaganda falsely claiming that we have to choose between environmental safety and jobs. In both cases, these fake choices led us down a seriously wrong path.  In the Gulf, we see countless people who depended on a clean ocean for their livelihood suddenly and cruelly thrown out of work.  In Indiana, we see BP justifying its dirty refinery expansion because it will create about 80 new jobs – and yet if BP put on the necessary pollution controls, we would create far more jobs than the refinery expansion ever will.  And these would be American jobs.  You can’t outsource the labor needed to retrofit our buildings for energy efficiency, or to install pollution control equipment; and we can build wind turbines using steel made in Gary, Indiana.

Most importantly, in both cases, we see that our country is now hitting bottom in our addiction to oil.  It is unfortunate that sometimes we need a disaster – personal or national – to make us change our ways.  But this is our opportunity to recognize that we have a problem, and to find a better way to live.