"The battle over business

When the CEO of British Petroleum America decided to pull the plug on his company’s plan to dump more pollutants from its Whiting refinery into Lake Michigan, he only postponed an even bigger showdown.

BP’s request to increase discharges into the lake proceeded from its desire to expand its refining capacity to process new supplies of crude oil imported from Canada. BP advocates, including Gov. Daniels, said this expansion would not only create jobs in Indiana, it would increase the supply of gasoline in the Midwest and lower pump prices. These advocates argued that the expansion’s benefits outweighed the potential risks to the environment or to the health of people who rely on Lake Michigan for their water supply.

At first it looked like a classic confrontation was shaping up, a face-off between economic development and environmental protection. In one corner you had the reigning champ, Big Oil, whose handlers said there was everything to gain and little to fear. The challenger consisted of all those people who said it was time to stop thinking of Lake Michigan as an industrial toilet.

Public outcry finally forced BP to change its plans. “Ongoing regional opposition … creates an unacceptable level of business risk for this $3.8 billion investment,” said Bob Malone, BP America’s chairman.

That was the headline. What received less attention was that, from the outset, environmentalists had been working to avoid making BP’s expansion an either-or proposition. In his Aug. 22 testimony before the Administrative Rules Oversight Committee in Indianapolis, Tom Anderson, executive director of Save the Dunes Council, noted that technical experts from the Alliance for the Great Lakes offered suggestions to BP on alternative waste treatment options that could collect, rather than discharge, ammonia and turn it into a marketable product. Alternatives were also offered for the treatment of mercury and other heavy metals. Anderson recalled a Lake Michigan Summit in Chicago, where Tetra Tech, the internationally renowned consulting firm, identified several existing technologies that could be used to treat increased pollution from the BP expansion. Anderson added that he was contacted by two Indiana businesses claiming they could treat the discharges — and create jobs for Hoosiers in the process.

The BP case underscores what is probably the biggest issue facing us today. And that is whether or not we have the will to make the structural economic changes necessary to avert environmental crises and actually improve our quality of life. In America, the real showdown isn’t between economic development and environmentalists. It’s between old, unsustainable business models and the new entrepreneurs who are developing new sources of energy and wealth creation.

The problem lies in the broad and deeply encrusted web of relationships old business has been able to create to make us feel that without its heavy hand on our shoulder, life itself will be inconceivable. Old business almost has a point: Try imagining a landscape without highways and expressways, massive parking lots and smog. There’s hardly a community in America not redesigned to accommodate automobiles and the gas that makes them go.

The same might have been said once about horses and buggies. But true horsepower was neither as efficient nor as great a wealth-producer as the oil business. It was brushed aside without regret. The money-making properties of internal combustion were so enthralling, we even scrapped our inter-urban railroad system and trolley cars.

State and federal governments have been enablers in all this. To say the relationship between the antiquated energy industry, oil and coal, and our politicians is incestuous puts it politely. BP thought nothing of dumping more waste in the lake in part because state government was there to say this was permissible. Now it’s come out that BP’s soot emissions in Whiting, part of the Illiana corridor often referred to by residents as “Cancer Alley,” exceed federal regulations because our department of Environmental Management has granted BP an exemption based on BP’s contention that halving the amount of particulates the refinery emits would not be economically feasible. Once again, environmental groups, the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois have asked that the exemption be overturned. They say BP hasn’t shown why the problem can’t be alleviated through creative engineering. 

Ironically, British Petroleum knows quite a bit about green power. At Hornchurch, in the U.K., BP has built what it touts as the first retail service station run entirely on renewables. Reed-bed technology is used to filter and clean waste water; there’s even landscaping to attract wildlife and a small wind farm that provides a habitat for bumblebees. This, of course, is small potatoes compared to the massive enterprise in Whiting. It’s a quantum leap from a neighborhood demonstration project to truly changing the way you do business on an industrial scale. But that is the opportunity facing BP in northwest Indiana — the chance to change.