Superior at center of great debate -- water and oil

Friday, December 12, 2008

From an article by Dan Eagan in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Superior - U.S. dependence on foreign oil conjures images of derricks pecking at Saudi Arabian sands or supertankers steaming for coastal refineries.

But here is a more apt icon for our future reliance on other nations' fossil fuels: fields just south of Lake Superior pocked with gymnasium-sized tanks of oil that's been piped 1,000 miles from tar sands in Alberta - one of the largest proven "unconventional" oil reserves in the world.

Very quietly, little Superior has emerged as a mainline for the nation's energy infrastructure. About 9% of the country's imported oil, roughly 1.2 million barrels a day, already flows into this city of 27,000 at the headwaters of the world's largest freshwater system.

And that figure is about to balloon with the opening of a $3 billion "Alberta Clipper" pipeline that could ultimately deliver some 800,000 barrels a day of the gooey tar sands oil, called bitumen, to an existing tank farm just outside downtown Superior, before it is shipped to refineries around the region.

The black stew won't arrive from Canada refinery-ready. That means billions of dollars must be pumped into retrofitting the regional refineries so they are able to strip away the bitumen impurities.

Oil prices have plummeted in recent months, and some refinery upgrade plans have been put on hold, but the pressure to add refining capacity in the region won't disappear.

This year alone, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers predicts $20 billion will be spent in Alberta developing the tar sands, which cover an area the size of Florida. The industry group also projects that the volume of Canadian oil processed in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and North Dakota will nearly double from 2007 to 2015.

It's going to mean a lot more locally refined fuel in a region that must now import it from faraway places such as the Gulf Coast.

It's going to mean an alternative to American reliance on unfriendly parts of the world for its energy lifeblood.

It's going to mean an economic boost tied to refinery expansions.

And it could mean more pollution for the Great Lakes, the source of water for 40 million people.