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Monday, August 20, 2007

Filtering the facts from the fallacies of BP controversy

By Dennis Byrne
Chicago Tribune

U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) is correct to call for congressional hearings into government approval given to BP for a $3.8 billion upgrade to its northwest Indiana gasoline refinery.

Just as long as the hearings help to clarify and correct the barrels of misinformation and distortions swamping the debate over the massive project that will bring cheaper and more abundant gasoline to the Midwest. The distortions have been sloshing around now for more than a month after approval of the project by federal and state regulators came under fire. A public summit of the major players in the controversy last week seemed to do little to clear them up.

Take the issue of "backsliding": Can any additional "pollutants," no matter how infinitesimal or harmless, be discharged into to the nation's lakes, rivers and streams, even if they are legal and within federal and state limits, as BP's are?

Some critics, such as Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) would go so far as to inaccurately suggest that any additional discharges are illegal. As he said in a letter to Benjamin Grumbles, the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for the Office of Water, "A specific provision in the federal Clean Water Act prohibits any downgrade in water quality near a pollution source even if discharge limits are met."

Well, yes, but there's a legal exception, according to the EPA, that he fails to mention, either from ignorance or mendacity: "Anti-backsliding provisions of the [Clean Water Act] contain an exception where material and substantial alterations to the permitted facility justify the application of less stringent effluent accommodate important economic or social development." Regulators correctly determined that the economic and social benefits of the refinery expansion meet that requirement.

Other critics don't go as far. They regard the exemption as a "loophole" that BP will use to "foul" Lake Michigan. Such claims usually are made without precise evidence about how the discharges will "foul" the lake, endanger the water supply or lead to horrific events that might justify the critics' hysteria.

For example, in ranting about the relatively small amount of ammonia allowed into the lake, the critics ignore the fact that ammonia is not a bioaccumulative chemical. It breaks down in the water. If it didn't, all the fish in the Great Lakes might have disappeared eons ago from swimming in their own urine.

Also conveniently missing from the debate is the context that could be provided by comparing BP with other industrial and city "dischargers." According to the EPA, BP's 4,925 pounds of suspended solids allowed a day compares with 16,630 at International Steel Group's East Chicago plant and 121,861 at its Burns Harbor facility. Ispat Industries' East Chicago plant is allowed 130,453 pounds, about 27 times BP's limit. Chicago, of course, is on another planet, permitted 243,000 pounds, almost 50 times BP's. Maybe Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who is threatening to sue BP, ought to sue himself. Except, I suppose that Chicago's discharges don't count because they aren't into the lake; they're just gifted to the Illinois river system.

Note also might be taken of the fact that no ammonia limits are imposed on a bunch of papermakers and cities such as Milwaukee and Green Bay. Chicago's allowable ammonia discharge (from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) is 61,000 pounds, compared with BP's 1,584.

Considering these facts, Stephen Elbert, BP America vice chairman, should have said at last week's summit, "Nuts. You don't want our jobs and economic development? We'll take them elsewhere." Instead, he went well beyond what is required and promised to look at suggested alternatives to cleaning up the plant's discharges. But, he added, any discharge alternative will have to "fall within the economic boundaries of the project," a perfectly legitimate position.

Mary Gade, EPA Midwest regional administrator, probably said the smartest thing all day when she asked everyone to get beyond the headlines and emotions and begin a more practical discussion.

The issue is larger than BP. In a way, it's a test of national importance of whether we can balance legitimate environmental and economic concerns. Of whether we can avoid couching the debate, as did Ann Alexander, a local Natural Resources Defense Council attorney, in such destructive and extreme terms as "sacrificing Lake Michigan in the name of oil addiction." Of whether politics will run roughshod over the public interest. Of whether demagoguery and emotion will trump facts and reason. Of whether radical environmentalism will prevail over science.


Stephen Schade said...

Mr. Byrne:

The BP refinery expansion will create a paltry 80 jobs. That hardly qualifies as an important economic development.

Anonymous said...

Comparing the allowed pollution discharge of several steel plants that permits are past due 15 to 25 years beyond their expiration dates is deceiving. They will be required to meet the tougher updated environmental standards as BP when their permits are finally renewed not extended.

Anonymous said...

Comparing the pollution output of an entire city of millions of residents and thousands of businesses to one companies refinery pollution is clearly comparing apples to oranges.

David M said...


It is clear that your opinion if formed and you look for reasons to support it. This is poor journalism at best. Lets look at some of the “tells”. First, you reduce the argument to a minimalist position. “no matter how infinitesimal or harmless”. The dumping is not infinitesimal or harmless. Second, you ignore facts that are contrary to your position. “..even if they are legal and within federal and state limits, as BP's are? “ The current law in Indiana forbids mixing zones, which BP will use to dilute the toxins. Three, you state opinions as facts. “Regulators correctly determined…” Correct in whose mind? Yours or the publics? Also, “..ammonia … breaks down in the water.” Does it? To what, N2 gas? Where did you get your chemistry degree? Four, you make unfair comparisons to avoid the issue. “..16,630 at International Steel Group's East Chicago plant and 121,861 at its Burns Harbor facility..” Maybe this is true, but the law is to prevent any increase in dumping, and if this Bush controlled EPA would venture, reduce it on a reasonable time-table. BP has the means and the money to reduce its pollution and it should - even if it means that we will pay a little more at the gas station. Dennis, I am 99.9999% certain that you need to go back to UW Milwaukee to pick up some classes on the ethics of journalism and some chemistry classes.

Anonymous said...

Obviously Chicago, Milwaukee, and Green Bay need attention immediately, while BP should be told to proceed, helping to lower gasoline prices.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Byrne:

Thank you for setting the record straight on the facts/fallacies surrounding the BP controversy.

I've been putting source materials together for the past couple of weeks to provide a more fair and balanced review of the issues regarding bp and to put the permitted emissions from Whiting refinery in context.

The Tribune sensationalists could learn a lot from you i.e. Elizabeth Douglass who thinks oil companies purposely hide money rather than expand refineries (duh isn't that what bp is doing with the Whiting expansion) and Michael Hawthorne who thinks bp has some sinister pollution plot to kill all the people and fish in and around Lake Michigan. Their unbalanced and contradictory tripe needs to be countered. Your note did a an excellent job in this regard and I likely won't develop the narrative I had envisioned.

Lastly, BP really has worked at being environmentally conscious notwithstanding their sappy commercials on TV e.g. first producer of low sulfur fuels, largest solar panel manufacturer, and numerous joint ventures on bio-fuel projects, and now the Whiting project to bring in a crude source from non-Opec and politically stable Canada.

It is just sad that bp mismanagement at Texas City and in Alaska created some high profile and justified criticism of bp. I think with Tony Hayward at the helm, bp will learn from its mistakes. Bp's problems need to be dealt with but it is no reason to pile on and certainly not from the ilks of Mayor Daley.

Bernie Siebenaler
Formerly with Indiana Standard

Anonymous said...

Hey Dennis:

Are you saying that fish take N2 gas from the air and convert it into ammonia? Or, do fish eat organic nitrogen, convert it to ammonia, which then is turned back into organic nitrogen (plants and animals) which is eaten by the fish? If the latter is correct, then nitrogen levels do not change. Can the same be said for dumping ammonia into the lake?

Please do say, Professor.

travisd said...

Wow, for someone root'n for the triumph of science, Dennis, you sure missed a chance to clarify some of that science.

Your example of fish that didn't disappear eons ago is decidedly unscientific.

Precious space dedicated to describing "barrels of misinformation" and "distortions swamping the debate"
AND for extra redundancy "distortions sloshing about."

Calls for cheaper and more abundant gasoline are not embracing even a mild environmentalism. It is the same consumerism. This country wastes oil on a daily basis at great social and economic cost to our children, our health, and our environment.

Jeff Elijah said...

How much did BP pay you to write this? $1,000?

Alex said...


When I read your article, I must say that I was quite disgusted with what you wrote. I immediately came to your blogspot to offer you some corrections, but it looks like I don't need to -- David M. did it for me. BP can afford to upgrade its plant without increasing pollution, I assure you.

The fact that Indiana's government is the one that is allowing this increase in pollution is absurd. That state has the least amount of coastline on Lake Michigan, yet was able to unilaterally decide that an increase in pollution was okay? Maybe we should wall off their part of the lake so their nasty water doesn't comingle with ours.

Doug Gries said...

Dennis: One thing you conveniently left out is that BP has somehow been allowed to dump Mercury in Lake Michigan in orders of magnitude more than EPA regulations allow for. We've been told this is an exception. Do you not see why the public is tired of companies polluting our natural resources? There's always an exception or some rule from to trump common sense (and not environmental radicalism as you like to deem it). I think you clearly miss the point - at some point this has to stop. Increasing pollutants and poisons (yes, mercury is a poison) in our drinking and fishing waters is not an option.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know exactly how much BP paid you for your little advertisement? With your glowing remarks of BP, I will assume you were one of the bloggers BP paid to do this.

Anonymous said...

Thank GOD Dennis Byrne; finally a reasonable voice in the business of reporting the News !!!

From my college days I understood journalists were to report the facts and let the public decide not decide for the public then sway their opinions through release of lies and half truths issued by politicians and environmentalist extremists intent on changing americas addiction to fossil fuel by regulating big oil out of business or overseas.

But then I wonder where will the editor place your article in the Chigago Tribune. Surely not on the front page where Mayor Daley's comments were displayed.

Politicians and environmentalists have raked BP over the coals in the press because we applied for legal renewal of our water permit. AND the Indiana Department Of Environmental Management approved it at less than the Federal and Indiana acceptable emmission levels !!!! What am I missing here? We are getting bad press for following the rules, obeying the laws, and trying to make gasoline to help reduce our dependance from foriegn oil. And WE are the bad guys !!!!! I Don't think SO !!!!

BP is expanding operation in order to make more gasoline IN the United States to assist us in becoming less dependent on foreign oil. This project will provide the Midwest with a secure supply of crude oil and it also potentially increases output of gasoline and diesel fuel by over 1.5 million gallons a day.

NOW let's talk environmental

The Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, historically known as the Chicago Drainage Canal, is the only shipping link between the Great Lakes (specifically Lake Michigan by the Chicago River) with the Mississippi River system, by way of the Illinois and Des Plaines Rivers. The canal also carries Chicago's treated sewage into the Des Plaines River.

As you have reported, Chicago dumps 243,000 pounds, almost 50 times BP's allowable limit and allowable ammonia discharge (from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District) is 61,000 pounds, compared with BP's 1,584.

Mayor Richard M. Daley Should clean up his own effluent before he threatens to sue anyone over environmental concerns. Perhaps Mayor Richard M. Daley is more concerned about his drinking water than the health and drinking water of those who live South of Chicago all the way down the Mississippi River. Perhaps they are not as important as he. Perhaps those living South of Chicago should consider a class action law suit against Mayor Richard M. Daley and the City of Chicago.

I am Mad as Hell, and I am Just saying, I am tired of paying high prices for foreign oil managed by dictators and terrorists. I am tired of watching American Businesses invest in foreign countries and I am tired of watching our job market run to overseas locations that are more friendly to corporate investment. I thank GOD we have an oil company like BP willing to invest $3 Billion dollars in the United States. I can't sit back and watch while the politicians and environmentalists force these investors out of AMERICA as well.


If you are really interested in the truth go to the BP website.

Oh by the way I too drink the water from Lake Michigan daily so it is important to me personally that we help keep it clean. And ALSO, the opinions expressed here are MINE and do not reflect the opinions of BP, It's owners, subsidiaries, Lawyers, Investors. Or anyone else. They are simply and purely mine.

Freedom of Speech works for the minority voice as well.

Is anybody listening? Or are you still listening to the Politicians. We can trust them. Right?

Steve B

Anonymous said...

OK, let's take these one at a time: 1. The addition of 80 jobs is only icing on the cake. The real advantage is improved energy supply and security by converting the refinery to processing Canadian crude oil as opposed to Middle Eastern, Venezualian, or the dwindling Texas crudes. 2. The steel plants haven't renewed their permits because it is not possible for them to comply. Filtering technology is only so good. The only option is to do without steel and motor fuels and asphalt and plastic and fertilizer, etc. 3. It may be comparing apples and oranges, but it does provide some lacking perspective. 4. Mr. M states that Mr. Byrne's opinion is already formed, yet it couldn't be more obvious that he is guilty of the same lack of ethics he accuses Dennis of. The critics of the BP plans continue assume that these contaminants can be reduced simply by choosing to do it. They can not. BP has stated over and over that the permitted levels are based on best available water treatment technology. Simply wishing for a thing does not make it so. As Mr. Byrne said, the choice is to increase these contaminants, still within EPA guidelines, or abandon the increase in gasoline supply and improved energy security that the project offers.

Lars Sorenson said...

Mr. Byrne:
I don't think you cleared anything up with your editorial. If anything, I think you have argued, rather fallaciously, that since cities like Chicago and Milwaukee, and plants like International Steel, already dump more in the lake than BP, then BP should be allowed to dump more in the lake.
It is also rather strange how you pit radical environmentalism against science in your final paragraph. The environmentalists have science on their side. BP has profit on its.
This is pretty crucial to conflict, and I think you neglect this. Just as Stephen Schade noted, 80 permanent jobs in Northwest Indiana is hardly economic development. And if you took a broader look at the issue, you would realize that the problem of high gas prices is not just a local problem. So, really, the economic impact of BP's proposed expansion is negligible--beyond BP pocketbooks--while its environmental impact is not.

Anonymous said...

Finally! A voice of reason! It's about time someone actually took the time to sort out the facts from fiction! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Anonymous said...

What about the 3000 or so contractors that will work for about two years to make the expansion a reality?

What about the jobs that are peripheral to the refinery rocess like steel suppliers and others who will certainly gain from the expansion and the materials supplied for that expansion?

Better yet what about the security in knowing that the second largest refinery in the United States will be helping reduce dependency on foriegn oil owned by dictators and terrorists and drug lords?

Anonymous said...

BP Leadership Appears to Lack A Moral Compass

BP just got a new CEO because the previous leader failed to invest in infrastructure and safety.

This became obvious when BP's Texas refinery exploded killing 15 workers and injuring 450+ others and their Alaskan Pipeline sprung leaks and was shut down. “After Action Studies” revealed that the company had severely neglected refinery and pipeline maintenance and modernization. Now they are trying to play catch up by making large investments in their refineries and pipelines which should have been made long ago.

BP's short sighted management decisions have placed our communities at risk, upset shareholders, and risked national security for quick profits.

It’s now time to make those deferred investments in the Whiting Refinery and do it correctly without cutting more corners for short term gains. Pollution control investments should not be an after thought in this industry.

Public Notice said...

Come join us Wednesday in Indianapolis. Bring a friend and a television news crew!!!!

An Indiana government oversight committee will conduct a formal hearing on August 22nd into the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's decision to grant a wastewater discharge permit to BP Amoco in Whiting.

The hearing of the Administrative Rules Oversight Committee will begin at 9:30 a.m. on that date in Room 401 in the Indiana Statehouse.

The hearing is open to the public. Any citizen is welcome to submit written testimony or petitions in advance. Statements may be mailed to Scott Pelath's office at 200 West Washington Street, Indianapolis, IN 46204.

Concerned Citizen said...

No one is protesting the expansion of the BP refinery.

Concerned citizens are protesting that the EPA and IDEM are allowing BP to cut corners on investing in waste water treatment equipment sufficient to keep up with the increased refinery production.

Anonymous said...

Somebody should investigate this blogger and track the payoff from BP. That would be a very interesting story.

David M said...

Anonymous said:

Mr. M states that Mr. Byrne's opinion is already formed, yet it couldn't be more obvious that he is guilty of the same lack of ethics he accuses Dennis of.

Not true, but what makes you say so? Even if it is true, the standards of one does not equal all. Dennis is a journalist and he is bound to state all facts in an objective manner. But if you see an error that I made, please say so.

The critics of the BP plans continue assume that these contaminants can be reduced simply by choosing to do it. They can not. BP has stated over and over that the permitted levels are based on best available water treatment technology.

Not true again. BP claims they do not have the space to increase the treatment facility, but cannot provide evidence for that. They never claimed it could not be done.

BP has a conflict of interest - money. They are in business to make money and they are torn between the social good and their bottom line. Remember the auto industry - they resisted pollution controls, EPA mileage regulations, said air bags could not work, and on and on. Thank GOD government insisted.

Anonymous said...

The timing of this news could not be much worse.

State probing Munster BP crude leak

Rich Trzupek said...

Dennis – great job. Spot on. It is rather sad that people who disagree with you immediately accuse you of taking a payoff from BP. I have been accused of the same. Is it so hard to understand that someone you don’t agree with can be motivated by passion, not profit? I suspect that such criticism reveals more about the critic’s personal motivations in life than anything.

For me, as an environmental professional, this is essentially a systemic argument, one that's too subtle for many people to comprehend. EPA manages the environment in a macroscopic way. That's how the regulatory system was designed. It recognizes that there will be economic cycles -- some plants shut down, others are built, and others increase productivity.

Now, if the regulatory system is going to work, it has to be able to account for new/modified sources of discharges, as well as reaping the environmental benefits of old sources that close their doors and sources who slow down. In order to do that, it generally demands better environmental performance out of the former and the older have more relaxed standards. The theory is that it makes more sense for industry to invest in improved controls as part of a large budget for new construction that it does when they are looking at a plant that may shut down in three years. And, as natural attrition continues, the environment will improve overall. BP did, of course, make a huge investment in upgrading their water treatment plant as part of this multi-billion dollar project. They did so in order to meet the discharge standards that apply to the project – exactly as the system demands.

Consider a small slice of that macroscopic pie as an example: the petrochemical industry in the Chicagoland area. An old, environmentally inefficient refinery shut down a few years ago (Premcor, in Blue Island). The slack in production has largely been assumed by the areas three more modern and much cleaner refineries (Exxon-Mobil in Joliet, Citgo in Lemont and BP-Amoco in Whiting). If you look at any one of those three, you might say: "oh my God, they are producing more and emitting more!!!" OK. That may be true. But if you look at the picture overall, the environment has been improved, because the slight increase in emissions associated with those three are more than offset by the shut down of the stinky old dinosaur.

That's not just theory. It works. We know that it works because discharges of pollutants in our water and air have steadily declined for over 35 years. (I'm not counting CO2 as a pollutant here, because it's a special case). Water and air quality have continually improved. You can - and people have - look at any single permit issued for new construction or modifications in that time and scream bloody murder that this "additional pollution" will destroy the environment. Bull. That's not the way it works. EPA only considers a project in isolation if it will have a unique local effect. (Like somebody pointing their smokestack directly into your living room). Otherwise, they design and operate a system that is built to provide continuing environmental improvement, even with isolated increases.

I'm no defender of EPA. The system works, but it's horribly (and in my view) needlessly cumbersome. I'm usually on the opposite side of the table from the regulators in my day job. So, in the BP case, it should tell you something that I am defending the Agency. The bloody system works. If politicians disagree, then change the bloody system -- don't cherry-pick a project that will enflame the public. (And - environmentally speaking - a really small project, in the scheme of things).
Pols like Emmanuel, Durbin, Obama and Kirk are essentially advocating environmental anarchy. I don't see how scrapping this system helps either industry or the environment. If we take environmental management out of the hands of the anal-retentive scientists at EPA (who are no friends of industry, by the by) and effectively place it in the hands of people pandering to the public for votes, then environmental management will simply become a matter of power politics. That prospect ought to scare everyone. Perhaps I am overstating the importance of this case, but if we don't draw a line in the sand somewhere - and let the scientists do their job - I believe that both the economy and environment will suffer in the long run.

In that spirit, I challenged opponents to answer five specific questions in my column in The Examiner. I have yet to receive a reply that is anything more than hysterical rhetoric, The questions are:

1) EPA tracks and regulates hundreds of water pollutants and ranks the ones that are of concern for a specific body of water. Where do the two pollutants the BP proposes to increase, ammonia and solids, rank in this hierarchy?

2) How do BP's discharges of ammonia and solids compare to naturally occurring levels in Lake Michigan?

3) How do BP's discharges of ammonia and solids compare to other sources, including industrial, water systems and agricultural runoff?

4) How has water quality in Lake Michigan changed in the last 30 years, and in the last 10 years?

5) How have discharge limits changed in the last 10 years? Have they grown more stringent, and resulted in an overall decrease in water pollution discharges, or have they gotten more liberal and resulted in an overall increase?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Byrne:

Your post on the bp controversy has generated some lively dialogue.

Rich Trzupek's provocative build on your thoughts was especially insightful. His five questions get at the key issues and facts that need to be considered regarding the bp expansion.

I hope Michael Hawthorne and other responsible journalists at the Tribune and the Sun Times find some answers to Rich's questions before publishing another sensationalist article about the evils of big oil.

Bernie S

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dennis Byrne said...

On second thought, I have removed a comment that I consider to be a personal attack on a reader. Personal attacks on me still are OK, because it exposes the poster as the witless person he is.

Stephen Schade said...

Ammonia reacts with water to produce an alkaline solution. Clearly, the chemistry is being changed.

Anonymous said...

Dennis said:
"On second thought, I have removed a comment that I consider to be a personal attack on a reader. Personal attacks on me still are OK, because it exposes the poster as the witless person he is."

Hmmm, you know the sex?