Last week I put up this poll asking where our oil comes for here in Chicago? Thanks to the monthly data on imports, I can now report that the majority of Illinois’ petroleum comes from our neighbors to the north: Canada. Congratulations to the forty percent of you who got this one right!
But those who chose US were very close.
Nevertheless, I myself had guessed the US would be number one. As it turns out several pipelines have been built in recent years linking the Alberta Tar Sands with local refineries in Joliet and Whiting, Indiana. Only a few years ago, the picture would have been much different. At that time, most oil came from the Gulf States. Now, so much oil is flowing south that for the first time pipelines are being reconfigured to continue the flow of crude oil to southern states!
Technically referred to as “heavy crude oil”, our Canadian oil is more challenging to refine. Traditional refineries can only process a minimal amount of heavy crude oil at a time. As a result, BP is currently upgrading its refinery in Whiting. After completion, the facility will be able to process far greater amounts of tar sands oil. Supposedly this will not lead to additional pollution. Given BP’s recent $4 billion criminal conviction, I am not holding my breath.
Truth is, however, that the writing is on the wall for this one. Canada is a stable democracy that is very close geographically. From an energy security perspective, the case for expanded use of Canadian oil is huge. Like any rose, this one has some major thorns. The extraction process is both more harmful to the environment and more detrimental in terms of carbon emissions. Converting tar sands into even heavy crude is an intense process. It also is destroying the largely indigenous First Nations’ way of life in the region. Like always the answer is the same – drive less in the short-run and hope alternative sources of fuel are developed soon!