The tragedy in your tank: Is it even possible to steer clear of tar sands gasoline?

“Brought into right relationships with the wilderness, man would see that his appropriation of Earth’s resources beyond his personal needs would only bring imbalance and beget ultimate loss and poverty by all.”

John Muir

Last August I wrote a post lamenting how all the gasoline retailers in my community of Sauk Prairie were connected in one way or the other to the filthy Canadian tar sands oil extraction that is despoiling millions of square miles of boreal forest in the Canadian subarctic.

I pointed to studies showing that, in addition to the atrocious environmental and public health damage at and near the site of extraction of the crude, gasoline produced from tar sands oil produces three times the carbon emissions of conventional gasoline by the time it is used as intended. I suggested that people could make far more progress toward shrinking their carbon footprints by seeking out retailers who don’t sell gas made from tar sands than they could by trading in a conventional vehicle for a hybrid-electric car.

One local reader wrote me to ask, “So where in the area can I find gasoline without tar sands oil?” I replied that I was in the process of trying to find out and that I would let her know what I discovered.

Well, I’ve found the answer and it’s not a good one: virtually all gasoline (and diesel fuel, home heating oil and jet fuel) now sold in Wisconsin is derived, at least in part, from crude originating in the Athabascan tar sands region of Canada.

Although he couldn’t supply me with exact figures, Erin Roth, director of the Wisconsin Petroleum Council, told me that most major suppliers of gasoline in Wisconsin sell blends containing well over 50 percent tar sands gasoline, and that many suppliers are as high 80 percent. The Marathon refinery in Minnesota, which supplies fuel to all Marathon stations, including several in Wisconsin, is at 100 percent Canadian crude, according to Roth.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

Roth was not able to give me the name of a single distributor or retailer of gasoline in Wisconsin who sells fuel made without tar sands crude. Neither was he able to say how much tar sands crude goes into any one seller’s blend.

“Percentages of crudes change on a daily basis,” says Roth. Many distributors, and some refineries, buy from whoever quotes them the best price, and those prices change constantly.

The news gets worse. With a hint of pride in his voice, Roth told me, “We will continue to increase the use of Canadian crude.”

Roth says BP recently spent $2 billion on upgrades to be able to handle more tar sands crude at its facilities. Currently 21 percent of all crude oil imported by the U.S. comes from Canada. Not all of that is tar sands crude – a small amount comes from conventional hole-in-the-ground wells. 2010 was the first year tar sands crude became the United States’ largest source of imported oil.

A huge new pipeline known as the Alberta Clipper carries tar sands crude from Hardisty, Alberta to the Murphy Oil refinery (currently for sale) at Superior, Wisconsin. Murphy refines some of this crude into gasoline and the rest is made into asphalt and other petroleum distillates. The bulk of what comes down the pipeline is sent through Wisconsin via another pipeline owned by Enbridge Pipeline, Inc. (they of the big spills in Michigan and Chicago last year) to refineries in Illinois. Much of that oil comes back into Wisconsin in the form of gasoline and home heating oil via truck and pipelines owned by the infamous Koch brothers.

Big Oil wants to build another large pipeline, The Keystone XL, from Alberta to Texas, allowing Canadian oil to be diverted from the Midwest, thereby increasing gas prices in the Midwest. Much of this oil would be shipped to Asian markets once it reached Texas. With heightened unrest in the Middle East, Canada is once again marketing its sludge as an alternative to the volatile prices that often accompany oil from overseas. But most crude imported into the U.S. comes from South America and our neighbor to the north, not from Saudi Arabia or Iraq.

According to the most recent (2007) figures available from the Legislative Reference Bureau, the vast majority of petroleum consumed in Wisconsin, 83.5 percent, is used for transportation. Residential use comes in a distant second at 6.7 percent. Industry and agriculture split the remainder, roughly 4 percent each.

The U.S. currently imports about 1.5 million barrels of Alberta tar sands crude every day. But the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards the Obama administration recently won approval from Congress for will save us almost that amount (1.2 million barrels per day according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report) by 2020.

The new standards will result in a 40 percent improvement over current fuel economy nationwide, saving 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of cars and trucks sold between 2012 and 2016, and will allow drivers to hang on to an average of $3,000 in fuel costs over the life of their vehicles.

Carbon dioxide emissions are projected to decrease by over 900 million metric tons because of the new standards. That’s about a 20 percent cut in emissions, but those reductions could be wiped out completely if sales of tar sands gasoline (remember, most estimates say this stuff creates between two to four times the CO2 emissions of conventional gasoline when the mining, processing and distribution is factored in) continue to climb. Indeed, a steep net rise in emissions could result from the increasing use of gasoline made from tar sands.

This information is not lost on Shahla Werner, director of the John Muir (Wisconsin) chapter of the Sierra Club. Werner and a colleague wrote an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2008 that brought attention to the enormous impacts of tar sands on the environment, local communities and human health. Last year during a hearing on the transportation section of the ill-fated Clean Energy and Jobs Act (CEJA) at the state capitol, Werner testified that a low-carbon fuels standard (LCFS) needs to be an important component of any clean energy legislation.

An LCFS would require that the mix of transportation fuels sold to automobiles and trucks in Wisconsin contain only a limited percentage of carbon intensive fuels. In conjunction with other conservation policies, an LCFS could significantly reduce overall carbon emissions by limiting the use of gasoline and other petroleum products made from tar sands crude.

Although an LCFS was not among the final recommendations of Governor Doyle’s Global Warming Task Force (made up of a broad range of stakeholders including representatives from industry, local government, environmental groups, utilities, tribes and local governments), reducing the carbon content of transportation fuels was called for as a way to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions in the state.

Despite the state legislature’s failure to bring the Clean Energy and Jobs Act to the floor for a vote last year, and the ubiquity of tar sands gasoline at filling stations throughout Wisconsin, action steps abound for those who no longer want to be complicit in the spread of this filthy fossil fuel.

One of the most important actions we can take, according to Werner, is to press for better transit options. Allowing communities to form regional transit authorities (RTAs) would be a big step in the right direction. A bill to do just that was defeated last year at the capitol, puzzling considering that RTAs stimulate both the construction and manufacturing industries, give employers better access to workers (and workers better access to employers), and sustain transit operations that hire locally, keeping dollars at home instead of sending them out of state and out of country to pay for oil. It’s not puzzling when you consider how much money the fossil fuel industry donates to candidates, and in lobbying them once they take office.

RTAs also provide a solid financial mechanism allowing Wisconsin to compete for federal transit-construction dollars, can ease costly traffic congestion, insulate communities from price shocks and foster more efficient land development. They save citizens thousands of dollars in avoided costs of driving and parking a car, especially when gas prices rise. And because RTAs can organize and modernize outdated, patchwork transportation systems, they can give communities a competitive edge in attracting and retaining business and residents. Currently there are only three RTAs in Wisconsin.

Supporting an electric vehicle infrastructure is also important, says Werner, who knows people who have already purchased the new Chevy Volt. Although Wisconsin still relies heavily on coal to produce electricity, she says, electric vehicles would still be far less damaging to the environment than conventional vehicles because most charging would take place during off-peak hours.

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

Werner admits that the Sierra Club nationally is not as far along on the tar sands issue as they are with their campaign to move the country beyond coal. She said she would like to see the issue become part of a cohesive national transportation campaign for the organization.

In addition to pushing for legislation to implement a low-carbon fuels standard and make it easier for communities to create their own regional transit authorities, there are several other things citizens can do, politically and in their personal lives, to tame the terror that is tar sands fuels:

  • Contact the offices of Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama to tell them that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is not in the best interests of the United States.
  • Push your state and federal representatives for an end to tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies, especially those which deal in tar sands crude.
  • Tell the manager of your local filling station that you don’t like having to buy gasoline made from filthy tar sands (many managers I talked to knew only that their gasoline came from Chicago); urge them to demand cleaner gas from their suppliers.
  • Drive less. Take public transportation, bike or walk whenever you can.
  • Drive a more fuel-efficient vehicle.
  • Purchase carbon offsets to mitigate the damage done by your vehicle. I recently calculated that I could offset all of my measurable carbon emissions for less then $200 per year. That’s a lot less than a hybrid or electric car would cost me.
  • Avoid gasoline made from corn ethanol. Until ethanol is widely rendered from non-food sources and can recapture more of the energy lost in the process, it will continue to increase the carbon footprint of gasoline and drive up the price of food around the world. It also decreases your gas mileage.

As I was writing this post, I received a call from my newly elected (Republican) state representative. He was responding to a letter I’d sent him about wetlands legislation. I was impressed that he called, and I told him so. He didn’t agree with me about the pending bill and he explained why. I told him I would be happy to let him have the last word on the matter if he’d grant me a few minutes to express some of my larger concerns about the environment, especially with respect to climate change and tar sands oil in Wisconsin. He agreed, and unless I’m mistaken, he hung up knowing a lot more about tar sands oil in Wisconsin than he knew before. At least he listened.

As Shahla Werner of the Sierra Club says, awareness is half the battle. Few people know just how devastating tar sands fuels are to the Canadian wilderness, native peoples, and our planet’s climate. As citizens and drivers, the least we can do is try to drive the point home: tar sands oil should stay in the ground.



  1. Wow. I had no idea about tar sands. Thank you for such an informative piece, Rick.

    I think the RTA idea is especially important for rural areas, and improving rural transportation options would help more than the environment. Much of what I read about alternatives to driving a car refers to options only available to urbanites or the physically able. I work for an organization that coordinates long-term care services for the elderly and adults with disabilities, in eight largely rural southwest Wisconsin counties. One of our biggest challenges is helping our members find transportation—to work, to shop, to community activities, to medical appointments. Granted there is much that can be done to restore neighborliness and community connections where people help each other in this respect. But regular transportation options like a bus or van network would be a big help.

    A decade ago I lived in rural Latvia for two years without a car, and most of the locals I knew did not have cars either. But the extensive bus system made travel quite easy, and you could go pretty much anywhere for a reasonable cost. I have memories of the bus stopping in what seemed like the middle of nowhere to let people off. Sometimes there would be a crossroads, sometimes just a path in the forest that the person would head to after exiting the bus. Since my family’s choice is to create a rural homestead where we can develop skills and permaculture plantings and contribute to the future of the local food supply, rural transportation is a personal issue for us as well. It’s one thing to think about taking produce to town on the back of a bike cart, or learning to work with horses, and it may come to that. But I think the reality would be pretty difficult, and I hope we can come up with some community transit options that serve the rural area as a whole.

  2. Thank you for your comments, Sarah. It’s so true that good transportation options are key to building (and restoring) community. As you probably know, the people of the coulee country where you live once defeated a proposal to build a four-lane interstate highway through the heart of that beautiful landscape. It is my hope that that same spirit of unity and community can put pressure on state and regional leaders to devise and implement sustainable modern transportation options for the area.

  3. Excellent post, Rick. One minor correction: The Governor’s Task Force on Global Warming did include a low carbon fuel standard (LCFS) in the final recommendation (Page 145 of the Final Report This recommendation was included in the first draft of the Clean Energy Jobs Act but was jettisoned from the substitute amendment due to opposition by the petroleum industry (somewhat surprising since Wisconsin has zero oil) and, even more surprisingly, by large agriculture lobbies (who feared that corn ethanol would be disadvantaged). The Canadians were also influential at creating fear over an LCFS and how this will lead to more Saudi oil instead of friendly Canadian oil. The Tyee in Vancouver ran an excellent three part series about how the Canadian government lobbied against clean energy policies in the U.S.

  4. Thanks for the compliment and the correction, Peter. And for your own good work to promote sane energy policy. I too was at the capitol for the Clean Energy & Jobs Act hearing at which the representative from the Canadian government pleaded. I wish I had known more about tar sands oil at the time…