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

By Eric Hansen

While the national media spotlight has been on the Keystone XL pipeline, another large tar sands crude oil pipeline scheme has significant implications for Wisconsin.

Alert citizens connected the dots and are cautioning us that extensive plans by the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge would lock Wisconsin, and the broader Upper Great Lakes region, into a future as a tar sands crude oil transportation corridor.

Threatened: Lake Superior, the St. Croix, Namekagon, Chippewa, Wisconsin, Fox and Rock Rivers, and decades of clean water efforts.

Also at risk: fundamental clean government procedure that protects both our water and community health; a citizen’s right to know.

Incredibly, a behind-closed-doors decision by the U.S. State Department approved an Enbridge plan to nearly double the amount (to 880,000 barrels per day) of tar sands crude oil it is pumping across the national border — and on to Wisconsin.

This is an attempt to avoid public review of a proposal that would open the floodgates for tar sands crude oil shipments — both by pipeline expansions and proposed barge traffic on Lake Superior and other Great Lakes.

Not so fast. A coalition of citizen conservation organizations and the White Earth Ojibwe Nation filed suit against the State Department on November 12. The lawsuit notes that federal law requires an environmental review for the proposed expansion (as with Keystone XL) and a determination of whether the pipeline is in the national interest.

Question: should our region’s water — our planet’s finest collection of freshwater — continue to be a public trust and its future decided in open debate and hearings?

Enbridge’s record is alarming: in 2010 Enbridge caused our nation’s largest onshore crude oil spill — in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Federal regulators described Enbridge’s response to the 840,000 gallon spill as “Keystone Kops.”

Cleanup costs currently total $1.2 billion.

Tar sands crude oil was already notorious for its climate impact aspects. The Kalamazoo spill revealed another, deeply troubling characteristic: tar sands crude oil is extremely difficult to clean up after a spill, it sinks.

Big picture: land-locked Alberta tar sands developers need a route to saltwater to export their product to the overseas market.

Strong resistance in British Columbia and Nebraska has lead them to attempt to construct a pivotal part of that route through Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Wisconsinites have a proud history of blocking ill-advised industrial schemes that threaten our public health and water.

Think of the massive citizens conservation campaign that led to Exxon abandoning plans for a metallic sulfide mine on the headwaters of the Wolf River, at Crandon.

Earlier, Wisconsin citizens rebuffed a well-financed campaign by the chemical industry and went on to lead the nation in banning the use of the pesticide DDT.

Now, Wisconsinites are questioning Enbridge’s plans to expand the capacity of a tar sands pipeline that runs from Superior to Delavan — and with good reason.

Four county boards, representing counties along the pipeline route (Jefferson, Dane, Wood and Walworth) — have passed resolutions requesting the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conduct a full review of Enbridge’s plans.

Worth tracking: Dane County is requiring Enbridge to apply for a conditional use permit for a new pumping station. Under consideration: having Enbridge post a performance bond to cover the costs of a Kalamazoo-like spill.

Now is the time to stand up for clean water, common sense and an end to ill-advised proposals to expand tar sands crude oil shipments. Insist that your elected local, state and federal representatives ask questions — and challenge permits for tar sands projects. Future generations will thank you. For more information go to

Milwaukee author Eric Hansen is an award-winning conservation essayist.

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