Canadian Tar Sands Pollution Moves South to US Refineries

October 15, 2008


Canada's Tar Sands development project keeps coughing up dirty little secrets. Here's one that might directly affect several parts of the US: Although no new US refineries have been built for more than 30 years, five are currently in the works. Three of these refineries — representing nearly 70% of the total increase in US refining capacity, about 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) — are slated to process Canadian Tar Sands crude. This means that a fair amount of the air and water pollution, energy and water resource needs, solid and toxic waste, and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the Tar Sands will be moving south of the border.

But it's not just new US refineries. It's retrofits, too. Also in the works are plans to retool 800,000 bpd of existing US refining capacity to process Tar Sands oil from tar sands. Meanwhile, US conventional crude refining capacity is experiencing a net drop of more than 300,000 bpd.

This shift is detailed in a June 2008 report jointly released by the DC-based Environmental Integrity Project and Canada's Environmental Defence. According to this report, here are the states that would play host to Tar Sands refineries: IL and TX (495,000 bpd total), IN (205,000 bpd), LA (180,000 bpd), MI (15,000 bpd), MT (13,000 bpd), ND (65,000 bpd), OH (316,120 bpd), OK (44,700 bpd), SD (400,000 bpd), and WI (200,000 bpd).

Full report, plus press release, fact sheet, and streaming audio of webcast presentation. Also, in April 2008 EIP also published a detailed spreadsheet of US refinery permitting activity, which provides enough information to track specific cases and companies. Contact: Ben Wakefield, 202-296-8800.

For communities near these new or retooled refineries, the pollution increase will likely be considerable. EIP/ED note that refining the "extra heavy sour" crude oil extracted from tar sands would yield higher air emissions of sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, sulfuric acid mist, nitrogen oxides, and toxic metals such as lead and nickel compounds.

EIP press: Patrick Mitchell, 703-276-3266. ED press: Jennifer Foulds, 416-323-9521 x232.

Recent coverage of some of these refinery projects:


Several US environmental laws and regulations govern the potential environmental impact of this refining capacity expansion. It'll be worth watching closely to see how stringently and consistently they're enforced.

Right now, while these facilities are in the permitting process, EPA is required to apply the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions to newly modified or constructed oil refineries. These can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), part 60, subpart Ja (Federal Register: 73 FR 35867, June 24, 2008).

In this process, EPA also can consider alternatives to tar sand oil feedstock when making determinations for "best available control technology" (BACT) and "lowest achievable emission rate" (LAER) under New Source Review (NSR) provisions of the Clean Air Act. The NSR process also allows EPA to consider increased air emissions of SO2, H2S, sulfuric acid mist, NOX, and toxic metals.

You can follow these actions via EPA regional offices. EPA HQ press: Cathy Milbourn, 202-564-4355. Current EPA emissions guidance for refineries.

In June 2008, EPA forced Encana Corp. and ConocoPhillips to revise their plans for expanding a planned Tar Sands refinery in Roxana, IL over clean air concerns (NRDC release). As of Sept. 25, 2008, this project was approved for construction.

State environmental agencies also will need to issue permits for new or expanded refineries. Also, the pipelines that would carry the crude from Canada to the new refineries also need US environmental permits. This could involve various federal agencies such as BLM, as well as state and local governments.


Perhaps the main reason why new US refineries are once again being built after a three-decade hiatus is the current political urgency around energy security, especially reducing dependency on foreign oil. On May 12, 2008, answered the question, "Does the U.S. lack sufficient oil refining capabilities?"

The US Energy Information Administration tracks a wide range of current data and statistics on petroleum refining, including refinery capacity. Press (refinery operations expert): Julie Harris, 202-586-6281.

The Sept. 19 episode of The Green Majority (a Canadian radio show also available via podcast) includes an interview with Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman Josh Mogerman about the impact of refinery retoolings in the US that are intended to accept product from the Canadian tar sands. Mogerman also blogs frequently about Tar Sands issues for NRDC. Contact Mogerman: 312-780-7424.

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