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Crude Work: Understanding How Crude Oil Moves Within the Great Lakes Basin

Graphic: We use oil for: Mobility, Agriculture, Chemicals, and Making Stuff

When it comes to oil, there is a rocky marriage of demand and controversy. In the U.S. crude oil makes up 28% of the country's energy use. How this slippery commodity gets from "here" to "there" generates the potential for urban growth and industry success. City governments are willing to fight to be part of the supply chain. But how crude oil is moved through the Upper Midwest also raises environmental red flags that citizens rally behind.

Alberta oil sands and Bakken crude move through the Great Lakes region by pipeline and rail. Though it is not currently transported on the lakes by ship or barge, the U.S. and Canada crafted regulations that permit such activity and several shippers have obtained the appropriate permits and approvals. (Conversely, the maritime industry regularly moves refined oil products on the Great Lakes.) The benefits and risks associated with each of these modes of transportation are not necessarily well understood by decision makers or by opponents, a situation that has resulted in a lack of transportation capacity, expensive lawsuits and divisive communities.

To resolve some of the controversy, Minnesota Sea Grant's Dale Bergeron, Maritime Extension Educator, helped facilitate the workshop, "Exploring and managing the issues involved in crude oil movements in the Great Lakes." This April workshop made the benefits and risks of oil transportation more transparent to a wider number of people. "Our aim is to produce a visual map of the complexity of the problem so that issues aren't exaggerated or minimized inappropriately," said Bergeron. "This is an inclusive exercise modeled after the successful collaboration that formed around ballast water management in the Great Lakes."

The discussions, which were driven by "best available science" and acknowledged emotional drivers, involved individuals diversely connected to oil transport. The dialog aimed to spark ideas for better managing the way crude oil is moved from "point A" to "point B."

The results of the meeting compiled in a "concept map" and supporting documentation will be distributed to policymakers and others interested in the multi-modal, multifaceted oil transportation challenge. It was clear at the "by invitation only" meeting that large amounts of crude oil move through the Great Lakes region and that the U.S. and Canada support this flow.

Rather than focusing on consensus, meeting organizers fostered points of connection among participants, who represented industry, government, academic, and environmental interests. Generally agreeing that regional oil-related infrastructure and policies need to be evaluated and updated, participants discussed matters like how the costs, benefits and risks of oil transportation should be distributed referencing Chicago's rail-congested inner city where oil passes through but does not generate economic benefits locally.

Such conversations and the concept map resulting from the crude oil meeting will help inform policy decisions that seek to strike balance between economic growth and environmental preservation.

The Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network, Enbridge, the Council of the Great Lakes, and the Lintilhac Foundation sponsored the April conference.

By Russell Habermann
June 2015

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