Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist and public radio commentator.

Don't miss out

Every morning, the Energy News Network compiles the top stories about the clean energy transition and delivers them to your inbox for free. Sign up today!

Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist and public radio commentator.

By Eric Hansen

Will Lake Superior and the Upper Great Lakes region continue to be the land of sky blue waters? Or will a vast swath of our pristine waters become a fading memory, soiled by the leaks and spills of a massive network of tar sands crude oil pipelines and maritime traffic?

Expanding proposals for more pipeline capacity by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge, as well as plans to ship tar sands crude oil across Lake Superior and other Great Lakes, are astonishing in their sheer scale.

For example, Enbridge is currently seeking to nearly double the capacity of its Alberta Clipper pipeline — which runs from Alberta, Canada, through Minnesota to Superior — to 880,000 barrels per day. That pipeline is a key enabler, a head gate for tar sands crude oil expansion projects in Wisconsin and throughout the region.

A regionwide public comment period for a Minnesota permit for that project is currently open, and an overflow crowd attended an April 3 hearing in St. Paul. Wisconsin regulators tabled an earlier permit application for a tar sands crude oil maritime loading dock in Superior after citizens objected.

Earth’s finest collection of fresh water — Lake Superior and the Upper Great Lakes — is not a reasonable location for a major transportation corridor designed to carry tar sands crude oil to the overseas market. If these proposals move forward, our region will be locked into a future of oil-impacted water, air quality and public health.

Tar sands crude oil is notorious for its climate change implications. Asphalt-like in its original form, it requires more energy than typical crude oil to convert it into a usable form. It is also particularly unsuitable for our water-rich region: Unlike conventional crude oil, it sinks after being spilled on water. Whether the spill can be cleaned up has yet to be shown.

Great Lakes history cautions us that shipping interests often externalize costs, the resulting damage is typically massive and long-lasting and the public is left holding the bag. Think of the dynamics of both how zebra mussels, sea lampreys and Asian carp became serious issues and why the threats were not addressed in a timely manner.

Due diligence is in order. Has our state and region done a systematic in-depth analysis of the broad implications of the tar sands proposals? Or are we, one piecemeal permit application at a time, lurching toward a future sprinkled with crude oil mishaps?

April 20 marks the fourth anniversary of the BP Gulf of Mexico fiasco, a vivid reminder of industrial overconfidence meeting reality.

Three months after the initial BP incident, our nation’s largest inland crude oil spill began on July 25, 2010. Just 150 miles east of Milwaukee, an Enbridge pipeline break poured 840,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Despite multiple alarms, 17 hours passed before Enbridge shut down the pipeline.

Today, the Kalamazoo River spill cleanup is still incomplete, with a price tag passing the billion-dollar mark.

“It will be very difficult to give Enbridge creditability going forward on any pipeline project,” the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board noted on July 11, 2012.

Given Enbridge’s record, why is the company allowed to propose a large, risk-filled expansion of its operations?

Now is the time to speak up for clean water and common sense.

Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist and public radio commentator.

Questions or comments about this article? Contact us at

4 replies on “Commentary: Tar sands expansion poses risk to Great Lakes”