What if the Great Lakes region required a substance that’s explosive, flammable, toxic and capable of destroying entire ecosystems—even cities—in order to sustain its economy and way of life?
It does, and that substance is crude oil. It is traveling through the Great Lakes Basin in ever-increasing quantities, and its usage is so entrenched for agriculture, transportation and the plastics that surround us, there is no question it will continue to flow.
The Great Lakes Sea Grant Network (GLSGN), which includes Wisconsin Sea Grant, has developed a bi-national, collaborative body of experts from government agencies, industry, transportation, nonprofit organizations and academia to examine the potential consequences associated with different modes of transporting crude oil within the Great Lakes Basin. This group, called the GLSGN Crude Oil Working Group (COWG) is developing a research agenda and creating collaborative resources for outreach/dissemination and policy evaluation.
“Sea Grant recognized that crude oil transport is a really complex problem that has multiple different stakeholders,” said Julia Noordyk, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s water quality specialist. “There’s a lot of opportunities and risks, and there are trade-offs between transportation modes. So what are those trade-offs and how as a region do we make those decisions and policies that are the best moving forward?”
The COWG developed a webinar series called Crude Move: Crude Oil Transport in the Great Lakes Basin to bring together all of the issues. The presentations are available online at Go.osu.edu/crudemove.
The risks of transporting crude oil are obvious. In July 2010, a pipeline carrying crude oil burst and spewed as much as 1.1 million gallons of heavy crude oil over the course of 18 hours into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan—the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It created a 35-mile oil slick that required neighborhood evacuations and took more than four years to clean up.
Environmental groups in Michigan are protesting a pipeline in another location—the 63-year-old Line 5 at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, where complex currents could allow any spills to spread throughout lakes Michigan and Huron with great speed. The 645-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline originates in Superior, Wis.
Pipelines don’t tend to be popular, especially among local residents.
“With most of the new-build pipelines, there are lots of protests out there,” said Bradley Hull, professor at John Carroll University and speaker in the first webinar of the series.
However, in comparison to other methods of transportation, such as railway and trucks, pipelines have some clear benefits.
“Pipelines are definitely the most environmentally friendly way to move oil,” said Noordyk. “They’re the least carbon intensive way, and while they can cause some really major ecological damage, they are not typically related to explosions and human catastrophes. Technology and safety regulations of our transportation systems has not kept up with the amount and demand for oil, and when you have a lot of these trains and trucks going through high-population areas safety really becomes a big concern. They can basically become a bomb if something derails or crashes.”
That situation has already occurred. In 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, and the ensuing explosion destroyed about half of the downtown, contaminated the rest and killed 47 people. Flaming oil ran into storm sewers, contaminating the water treatment plant and causing explosions inside the storm drains.
The COWG hopes to enable stakeholders and policymakers to cooperatively make the difficult decisions by providing the information they need. This could be in the form of a computer model that would encompass all the possible transport options and their benefits and drawbacks.
“We would use that model to come up with the best possible routes so that things don’t just happen on their own,” said Hull. “Decision-makers would have a little more guidance toward economic, social and environmental goals.”
Given that the movement of crude oil in the basin isn’t likely to decline and is even projected to increase, a proactive approach becomes even more important.
“The fact is that crude oil is moving in more and more quantities and it’s not going to stop,” said Noordyk. “We have choices as a region as to how we want it to develop.”
Almost 190 people participated in informal discussions about the St. Louis River along the Wisconsin-Minnesota border this past year. Topics ranged from the animals found in the estuary, to ongoing restoration projects, to how to put a dollar value on the services and natural areas the river watershed provides.
The talks were held at the Vikre Distillery in Duluth, Minn., and Barker’s Waterfront Grille in Superior, Wis. This year, Minnesota Sea Grant joined partners Wisconsin Sea Grant and the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve in the project. The organizations are working on plans for next season’s series.
That sweet feeling of Habitattitude will last, thanks to a continuation of a grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
For the past several years, Tim Campbell, Wisconsin Sea Grant’s aquatic invasive species specialist, has been involved in the national public education campaign to warn the public about the dangers of releasing exotic species—from koi to classroom crayfish to invasive plants—into the environment. The original outreach message was broad and effective, but now it’s time to focus.
“We’ll be targeting groups like teachers, retailers and pet store employees,” explained Campbell. “We want everyone who might get a request from someone looking to surrender a pet to know exactly what to do so that a pet never gets released.”
Over the next year, Campbell and the other members of the Habitattitude Surrender Collaborative, including existing partners like Jamie Kozloski of Kingdom Animalia Exotic Pet Rescue and new ones like the Green Bay Aquarium Society, will work on developing classroom curriculum/lesson plans to train teachers who use exotic and aquatic invasive species in their classrooms. They’ll also conduct workshops and online trainings, and visit pet shows and pet stores to gauge how much people already know about Habitattitude. Finally, the grant will also allow Wisconsin Sea Grant to host a second Great Lakes Briefs on Invasive Organisms Traded in Commerce (GL BIOTIC) Symposium in Milwaukee in 2017. The symposium will allow invasive species experts from across the country to share information on how to best manage invasive organisms in trade and how to implement Habitattitude.