ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
We're going to focus now on the oil boom in North Dakota and western Canada where crude is being produced faster than it can be shipped to refineries. Railcar manufacturers simply can't make new tank cars fast enough. And new pipeline proposals face long delays over environmental concerns. So, energy companies are looking for new ways to get the heavy crude to market, including shipping it over the Great Lakes. But that, too, is controversial, as NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: There's a lot of oil under the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and tens of billions of gallons more in the tar sands area of Canada's western Alberta. Crews are working around the clock to extract that oil with great success. So much so that even though there are more pipelines and railroads transporting that oil, it's not enough to meet demand, says Noel Ryan, a spokesman for Calumet Specialty Products Partners, an energy company based in Indiana.
NOEL RYAN: As domestic production of crude oil from unconventional shale places such as the Bakken formation among others, continues to increase, so too will the need to identify the safest, most reliable methods by which to transport crude oil to our nation's refining centers.
SCHAPER: One method, Ryan says, Calumet is exploring is transporting the crude by barge over the Great Lakes to refineries in the Midwest and eastern U.S. Calumet wants to spend $20 million to upgrade a dock next to a refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, where surplus oil could be transferred from pipeline onto barges and then shipped over the waters of Lake Superior. Ryan reads from a company statement on the matter.
RYAN: Given a lack of sufficient pipeline and rail capacity to transport crude oil from northern production fields to key refining centers, this project has received significant indications of interest from our customers.
LYMAN WELCH: A spill in the open waters of Lake Superior would be very difficult, if not impossible, to clean up.
SCHAPER: Lyman Welch is director of water quality programs for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. As communities weigh the potential economic benefits and jobs created by shipping the oil, Lyman's and other groups want them to be aware of the risks, too. Standing on the bitterly cold shoreline of Lake Michigan in Chicago, Welch says the heavy crude presents special problems.
WELCH: Tar sands crude oil is heavier than water, so much of it sinks to the bottom of a river or lake water body if there's a spill.
SCHAPER: Welch points to the massive spill of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in the summer of 2010 from a ruptured Enbridge pipeline.
WELCH: It has taken three years and over a billion dollars spent in cleanup efforts. And it's still estimated that 20 percent or more of the oil that was spilled remains on the bottom and may never be completely cleaned up.
SCHAPER: That spill was not too far from where the river empties into Lake Michigan. And Lyman Welch says his organization's study finds that response readiness and current regulations are not adequate to prevent nor clean up a similar such spill in the Great Lakes.
Some oil is already shipped over the lakes but not the heavy tar sands crude. Regulations for it still need to be developed. Jerry Popiel of the Coast Guard oversees incidents such as oil spills in the region, and he agrees heavy tar sands crude presents unique challenges. But he says the Coast Guard would strictly enforce safety regulations if tar sands crude shipping were to be approved. And he says, the Coast Guard would respond to any spill as if it were his own backyard.
JERRY POPIEL: Personally, I grew up on the Great Lakes and I still live there. My kids swim in it. And, you know, we drink the water ourselves, so we have, you know, a vested interest as anyone to keep the system, you know, as clean and environmentally sound as possible.
SCHAPER: Popiel says there are still many permits and approvals by various government agencies to be granted before any tar sands crude shipping begins. But the first, by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources for the dock upgrades, could be approved early next year. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.