What’s in your tank?

The Flint Hills Resources Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota processes about 320,000 barrels of crude oil per day, most of it from Canada's tar sands.

If you drive a car in the Midwest, odds are pretty good that you’re burning oil from Canada’s tar sands.

That’s what environmental journalist Rick Chamberlin found out as he tried to find a gas station in Wisconsin that didn’t sell gas refined from tar sands oil.

Although he couldn’t supply me with exact figures, Erin Roth, director of the Wisconsin Petroleum Council, told me that most major suppliers of gasoline in Wisconsin sell blends containing well over 50 percent tar sands gasoline, and that many suppliers are as high 80 percent. The Marathon refinery in Minnesota, which supplies fuel to all Marathon stations, including several in Wisconsin, is at 100 percent Canadian crude, according to Roth.

Roth was not able to give me the name of a single distributor or retailer of gasoline in Wisconsin who sells fuel made without tar sands crude. Neither was he able to say how much tar sands crude goes into any one seller’s blend.

The same is true in Minnesota, as Minnesota Public Radio’s Stephanie Hemphill found in June. (The story contains a particularly prescient line referring to the pipeline network that supplies the refinery: “The pipeline occasionally springs a leak, but those spills are usually small and can be cleaned up quickly.” Less that two months later, a pipeline operated by Enbridge, Inc., would spring a leak and dump 800,000 gallons of crude into a Michigan river.)

Depending on whom you ask, our region’s dependence on tar sands oil is either a positive or a negative thing. People who are unconcerned with environmental damage like the fact that our oil comes from a politically stable source. But as both reporters point out, there is a high ecological cost to be paid in return.

The larger point is that it’s virtually impossible to tell exactly where your gasoline comes from, which makes it an exercise in futility to attempt to affect the oil market through consumer choices. To what extent has drilling policy, for instance, been swayed by that handful of people who boycotted BP stations for a few months last summer?

Meaningful reductions in oil consumption will only come about in two ways – decline in economic activity, or regulations to improve fuel economy and reduce vehicle miles traveled. Environmental regulations and renewable fuel standards could have an impact, too, but one study estimates that even under best-case scenarios, biofuels could only replace about one-third of the gasoline we use today.

Photo by Thunderchild7 via Creative Commons

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