With the BP oil spill in the Gulf finally contained and a long, slow recovery process beginning, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Midwest office in Chicago took the opportunity at an August 10 “EcoSalon” to remind locals of the long-simmering and misguided “jobs vs. environment” debate around BP’s ongoing refinery expansion in Whiting, northwest Indiana.
In the Gulf, even those most affected by the devastation have railed against an offshore drilling moratorium or other curbs on the oil industry, dependent on it as they are economically.
Similarly in Whiting, residents live with serious public health and quality of life impacts from the refinery, which processes heavy crude oil from Canada including controversial tar sands oil—which is driving the expansion. But residents of the economically depressed area are also terrified of losing the jobs and economic stimulus provided by the refinery, as northwest Indiana resident Jeanette Neagu noted at the EcoSalon.
“If we were to have a meeting like this in Whiting or Hammond (Indiana), it would be saturated with the ‘jobs people’ saying we’re trying to take their employment away,” she said. “The only thing that might make a difference is showing real data about how this is affecting their health.”
NRDC staff attorney Ann Alexander and NRDC Midwest program director Henry Henderson countered that in this case as in so many others, the “jobs versus environment” trade-off is a false dichotomy promoted by industry to avoid making profit-curbing investments to protect public health and the environment. Alexander noted that if BP invested in more and better technology to reduce the air and water emissions exacerbated by its tar sands expansion, more jobs would actually be created.
“No one is talking about taking away jobs, you create more jobs by doing things right,” she said. Among other things, extra pollution control and monitoring equipment takes more people to install, operate and maintain.
Neagu, president of the group Save the Dunes, said locals have noticed much of the equipment at BP’s refinery is foreign-made. She said the company should be pressured to buy American-made equipment, to indirectly create jobs here.
Save the Dunes interim executive director Susan Mihalo noted that there are “green jobs” training programs available in the region, supported with stimulus funds, state programs and affiliates of the Blue Green Alliance, a national labor-environmental coalition.
“There’s an opportunity for green jobs related to renewable energy, recycling, natural resources management,” she said. “That’s what we need to be looking at.”
Alexander called the BP Whiting debate a modern manifestation of “the old jobs versus owls” question, referring to the early debates over endangered species protection in the Pacific Northwest, where timber industry lobbyists fought environmental protections on the grounds they would destroy jobs.
Henderson noted that BP has insinuated it would somehow pull up stakes altogether, or at least halt the tar sands-driven expansion, if it were forced to implement stricter pollution controls.
“There’s this threat that we’ll abandon your community and leave you in the dark as subsistence farmers,” he said. “That’s the claim. But is that believable, that they’ll utterly disinvest and leave this behind?”
Such threats might carry more weight in the case of manufacturing operations that can offshore their facilities. But oil refining can’t exactly be outsourced, and there is little doubt the tar sands oil will be refined in the U.S. – most likely right in Whiting and other Midwest refineries – as long as our society continues its current oil dependence.
David Pettit, a California-based attorney for the NRDC who previously represented Exxon Mobil during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, stressed that people should consider BP’s behavior in the Gulf of Mexico when deciding whether to trust the company in their own community. He said BP is considered the worst of the major oil companies, with a record of spills resulting in criminal charges.
Ideally, of course, environmentalists would like to see the country’s energy schema shifted to clean and renewable sources. But in the meantime, they say, there is no reason refineries like the one in Whiting shouldn’t implement the best available pollution control technology , perhaps cutting into their bottom line but protecting public health and the environment and creating jobs at the same time.
“It comes down to a lack of vision,” Alexander said of the corporate status quo. “The notion that we’re staring into this big abyss where if we don’t keep doing the same thing, we don’t know what will happen. But things can be done differently.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.