Waking up in Indiana on Monday morning as my train trundles along the flat shores of Lake Michigan, BP’s mega-refinery at Whiting welcomes me to the outskirts of Chicago. Belching out pollutants over the local communities and into the lake since 1889, the refinery turns 410,000 barrels of crude into petrol, jet fuel and petroleum coke every day.

20 miles south of Chicago, most local residents are people of colour or working class. Nearby communities & activists including Coalition for a Clean Environment and Calumet Project have long complained of health problems resulting from flaring & pollution. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has repeatedly cited BP for violating the Clean Air Act, and in 2009 the company admitted that for six years it had been violating limits on benzene, a volatile chemical linked to leukemia.

Yet rather than rectify the problem, BP is expanding its operations through an enormous $3.8 billion “upgrade”.According to BP, it is “modernizing its Whiting Refinery for the processing of heavier crudes. The modernization is essential to the long-term viability of the refinery.” In this case, “heavier crude” is PR-speak for tar sands-derived crude. So BP is retooling its refinery to process tar sands-crude from Canada, hoping this will protect the “long-term viability” of its profit stream. Even according to BP, and despite supposed “environmental improvements”, the expansion will increase greenhouse gas emissions by 40% – the equivalent of adding 320,000 cars to the USA’s highways.

A legal case by national and local campaign groups pushed the EPA to revoke BP’s permit to handle high sulfur Canadian tar sands-crude.
Meleah Geertsma, an attorney and public health expert with the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicagoexplained the campaign and highlighted the local health impacts of tar sands extraction within the US borders: “While the land and greenhouse impacts [of tar sands] have been widely discussed in the media, air pollution associated with expanding Canadian tar sands crude refining capacity has gone largely unnoticed.”

A thin cover of snow lies on the ground, outside the refinery fence. Hundreds of Canadian geese are flying south overhead, in large Vs of 50 birds each, with stragglers trying to catch up. Will tar sands follow the geese?

Extracting the tar sands does not end with cancer for Alberta’s First Nations and ugly black holes in the boreal forest. It relies on a trans-continental infrastructure project, a web of offshore gas fields, pipelines, strip-mines, refineries. BP’s $3.8 billion megaproject outside Chicago is thus both a node of corporate power and of resistance.