CHICAGO - "Just three miles south of Chicago is the largest tar sands refinery in America" said Thomas Frank. "The tar sands project (in Alberta, Canada) is the largest engineering project in human history, an area the size of Florida."
Frank of East Chicago, Indiana lives in the shadows of the British Petroleum (BP) refinery at Whiting. BP will complete a massive $4 billion expansion of the refinery this year to process tar sands crude oil.
Frank was speaking April 22 at an Earth Day rally in Chicago protesting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline and the threat tar sands oil poses to freshwater, air and climate. It was one of scores of actions held across the country.
On the same day, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a public comment saying the U.S. State Department's study lacked "sufficient information" to determine the impact of the pipeline on the environment.
The EPA commented, "Emissions from oil sands crude would be 81 percent higher than regular crude. If (greenhouse gas emission) intensity of oil sands crude is not reduced, over a 50 year period the additional CO2 from oil sands crude transported by the pipeline could be as much as 935 million metric tons."
Noted climatologist James Hansen calls this kind of discharge of greenhouse gases "game over" to achieving a stable climate.
"Indigenous peoples are on the front lines everywhere," said David Bender with the Chi-Nations Youth Group, and one of several speakers from the American Indian community. "We will not sit idle as these psychopathic corporations privatize, pollute and destroy the water essential for life."
Leonard Malatare of the American Indian Center described the struggle over the past few years by the Oglala Lakota tribe in the Pine Ridge reservation to fight the Keystone XL pipeline. Last year tribal members blocked a convoy of trucks crossing the reservation bound for the tar sands.
Oglala Lakota activists call the pipeline the "black snake" and vow to stop it. They warn it endangers the Ogallala Aquifer, which spans eight states and is source of drinking water for portions of the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River Eagle Butte and Rosebud Reservations.
The Alberta Province does more trade with Illinois than any other state, trade based on tar sands oil production. This means Illinois and the region are already tied heavily into tar sands crude oil, a lot of which is being refined in Joliet and Lockport, Illinois and Whiting, Indiana.
The state leads the Midwest in crude oil refining capacity and is fourth in the nation.
Illinois is also a key hub for transporting both natural gas and petroleum products across North America via pipeline, truck and rail. The existing pipeline network including the Enbridge Pipeline, which carries tar sands crude to the Whiting BP refinery and the Flanagan pipeline, which activists say will carry more dirty tar sands crude south than the Keystone XL Pipeline.
As part of the expansion of tar sands refining, Indiana approved BP's water permit in 2008 to discharge 5000 lbs. of ammonia into Lake Michigan daily and 1500 lbs. of soot. Then Chicago Mayor Daley led a drive to gather a million signatures in a week and a week later struck a deal with BP.
"But nothing has changed," says Frank. "That permit is in place and BP is still dumping toxic tar sands byproducts into Lake Michigan," even after installing $400 million in state of the art pollution control equipment.
Debra Michaud of the Rainbow Action Network said although this was the 43rd anniversary of Earth Day the situation facing the planet was direr than ever.
"More than half our nation's waterways are unsafe for aquatic life," she said. "Our oceans are on the brink of collapse, 95% of our original forests are gone, and carbon concentrations in the atmosphere are threatening life."
Michaud called for a much bigger movement to block the plans of energy corporations and to transition to a sustainable economy.
A letter was delivered to both Gov. Pat Quinn and Attorney General Lisa Madigan calling for a moratorium on efforts to radically expand fracking and a rejection of expansion of the tar sands project in Illinois.