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BP and Lake Michigan

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press

Energy independence and environment are both important, but there will be tradeoffs.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007 09:51 am
Hoosier environmentalists are angry that the state is allowing BP to release “significantly more” ammonia and sludge into Lake Michigan from its refinery in Whiting.But there's more to the story, and its complexities illustrate the tradeoffs we sometimes have to make in a modern industrial society. Energy independence and clean water are both important to us. We don't get to pick one or the other. We must, instead, determine which one has to be advanced a little at the expense of the other at any given moment.

Right now, our water is getting cleaner, but we are increasingly vulnerable because of energy. Maybe, at this moment, energy deserves a slight nod.

BP received permission from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be exempt from environmental laws that cap the amount of toxins into the lake. It will be allowed to include in its daily discharges into the lake 54 percent more ammonia (above the current 1,584 pounds) and 35 percent more sludge (above the current 4,925 pounds).

The exemption will allow the refinery to continue with a planned $3.8 billion expansion that will allow it to handle heavy crude oil from Canada, which requires more extensive processing. The refinery will also be able to increase its current capacity of about 420,000 barrels a day by 15 percent. Also, about 80 new jobs will be created in the state, but that's an almost inconsequential factor considering the importance of the other issues involved.

The oil we get from Canada will be oil we don't need to get from the Mideast, and in today's world, the importance of that can't be stressed enough.

The last refinery built in this country was built 29 years ago. Community, political and environmental roadblocks have prevented other new ones, representing the kind of myopia that has us in the energy bind we're in. We can't drill for oil in Alaska. We can't have just a few blends of gasoline but must cope with myriad regional requirements. And when we do finally do try something, we choose biofuels, likely to have drastic and unpleasant consequences for the food chain.

Oil independence became a rallying cry in the wake of 9/11, but we haven't exactly made sterling progress. The U.S. government predicts that by 2025, the country will import 68 percent of its oil. Two-thirds of the world's oil reserves are concentrated in the unstable Middle East. China and India will increasingly compete with us for the oil that remains. You don't have to be good at math or geography to see the dangers in all this. Any small step away from it would seem to be a good step.

But the environment is more important to the critics of BP and the state. “Lake Michigan should not become a victim of Indiana's economic development,” said one newspaper editorial, and “. . . given the increasing value of fresh water resources, the decision could easily become shortsighted economically as well as environmentally.”

Lake Michigan isn't exactly being sacrificed, though. Despite the increases in discharges, BP will remain within federal pollution guidelines, and both federal and state environmental authorities have reviewed the company's plans. As part of the exemption deal, BP will build a new diffuser apparatus that will reduce the concentration of pollutants in the water by mixing them with clean water 200 feet from the shore.

Environmentalists are right to point out that this is the first time in years that a company has been allowed to dump more toxic waste into Lake Michigan, and right again to watch that this does not become a trend. And BP needs to be held accountable if it says it has done all it can to process the oil as cleanly as possible. The company markets itself as an environmentally friendly company and should be held to that standard.

But the tradeoff this time seems justified.

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