Private Profits, Public Costs

While Democratic leaders in the U.S. House agreed to a national energy strategy that raises taxes on oil companies, at least one Midwest Republican is pushing an amendment to the plan that would eliminate a specific federal tax break for gas producers that pollute America's Great Lakes.

The proposal, spearheaded by Illinois Congressman Mark Kirk, is the latest move to pressure oil giant British Petroleum to rethink its plan to pump increasing amounts of ammonia, solid waste, and possibly mercury into Lake Michigan as part of a $3.8 billion project to expand the company's refinery in Whiting, IN.

It comes as restoration of degraded Great Lakes waters and waterfronts rises as a top economic and environmental priority across the Rust Belt region.

"If BP does not protect Lake Michigan, then Congress should step in and provide protection," Congressman Kirk said. “My amendment to the House energy package will deny capital expense tax credits to any refinery that increases net pollution into the Great Lakes."

Just how much BP stands to gain through the federal tax credit to encourage increased refinery capacity remains unclear. But the company also reportedly received financial support from the State of Indiana to move forward with the Whiting expansion. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation offered BP a significant incentive package last year, according to a September 20, 2006 report by Inside Indiana Business. Those incentives included up to $450,000 in training grants and approximately $1.2 million in tax credits based on job generation and capital investment.

What's more, Indiana Department of Transportation and Indiana Department of Workforce Development offered to provide additional incentives for infrastructure improvements and worker training.

BP reported nearly $7.4 billion in profit for the second quarter of 2007 alone. But the company, which markets itself as a progressive environmental leader, continues to resist calls for reasoned investments in technology and water treatment infrastructure that would clean up its waste water and help protect, rather than steadily degrade, water quality in the nation's largest source of fresh surface water. So the expansion plan, and its proposed pollution, continues to attract national interest, most recently in the New York Times.

Congressman Kirk said, as proposed, the expansion plan raises all sorts of expensive environmental and economic questions for taxpayers. Closing one Lake Michigan beach due to bacteria contamination, for example, can cost local communities anywhere from $7,900 to $37,000 per day, Rep. Kirk's office said.

"If commonsense does not prevail," Rep. Kirk said, "Congress will consider removing federal benefits from any company that plans to increase pollution in the Great Lakes. Taxpayers should block benefits to companies that poison Lake Michigan.”