Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Why The Murphy Oil Refinery Expansion In Superior Will Be "The Biggest"

So let's define our terms when it comes to the planned expansion of the Murphy Oil refinery in Superior, and why you will see the word "biggest" describing the project.

Wetlands Costs:

State Capitol sources report that building a refinery expansion at the Superior site will require the largest filling of Wisconsin wetlands since the adoption of wetlands filling rules and procedures contained in the 1972 US Clean Water Act.

According to briefing materials obtained under the State Open Records Statute, incoming Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Matt Frank was told that the potential impact is 300-400 acres.

The figure of "up to 500 acres" has been mentioned by state officials, sources report.

To put that into perspective, the contentious battle last year over the location of a proposed Menards warehouse in Eau Claire involved about two-thirds of one acre.

After an uproar over the possibility that there would be that small wetlands filling, the company cancelled the multi- million project and said it would distribute the warehouse's 900 potential jobs elsewhere.

Because in Wisconsin, wetlands loss is considered a very bad thing, and saving even small parcels of the state's dwindling wetlands legacy has widespread support from constituencies as varied as urban environmentalists, small-town anglers, and farmers.

One reason for why the substantial impact to wetlands at the refinery site is so huge is that much of the City of Superior, WI is wetlands, given its proximity to Lake Superior.

The briefing document captures the significance of the wetlands filling issue in one simple, understated bureaucratic sentence under "related information:

"Wetlands impacts are a major issue and will likely dictate the scope and direction of the project."

Financial Costs:

A number of documents indicate that the potential cost of the expansion is $6 billion, and that while preliminary scoping and planning is underway with the involvement of several local state and federal agencies, Murphy is still searching for a partner to handle some of the investment cost.

When it happens, the project will be big, actually "the biggest."

"The economic impacts of this project are such that it will likely be the largest project in the history of the state of Wisconsin," says the DNR briefing report to Frank.

So the expansion may end up being framed as environment vs. jobs.

That's an unfortunate construct for debate because recent studies have shown a $50 billion payoff for Great Lakes cleanup (oil refineries have a way of leaking and discharging pollutants), and sustainable employment, in cleaner jobs, through alternative energy development.

(A good piece about these issues, by Clean Wisconsin attorney Melissa Malott, is here.)

And It's More Than A Refinery Project:

The DNR/Frank briefing documents also indicate that while the Murphy Oil refinery would process crude oil coming south from Canada's tar sands regions (this is what the earlier fight over the Enbridge Pipeline was all about), another pipeline will be needed to move refined products out of Superior.

"A products pipeline to the Chicago area and points south will also need to be constructed as part of this expansion project," the briefing document says.

The Enbridge pipeline moves from Superior south to the St. Louis area, and has been plagued by construction permitting violations, including illegal damage to wetlands.

So get ready for another pipeline siting and routing struggle, because there are a lot of wetlands, rivers, streams, farms and additional valuable properties between Superior and Chicago.

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