The Sacrifice Zones of American “Energy Independence”: Pipeline and Refinery Expansion in the Chicago Region

By Graham Pickren, Roosevelt University §

The United States is seemingly on its way to “energy independence.” Since the oil price increases and gas lines of the 1970s shocked the sensibilities of an American population blissfully unaware of the inter-dependencies that structured their everyday lives, both Democratic and Republican regimes have aggressively pursued domestic energy production projects. But it wasn’t until the first decade and a half of the 21st century that the confluence of high energy prices and new recovery technologies – horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and in-situ bitumen extraction (pumping steam deep underground to mobilize tar sands oil) – enabled previously costly and/or unproductive fossil fuel projects to suddenly become viable. The resulting boom has seen a 50% increase in oil production since 2008. Oil imports have fallen from 60% in 2005 to 35% today, and natural gas production has grown by a third over the same period (Yergin 2017). This has led to a triumphalist discourse around energy independence that highlights job growth in places like North Dakota and Texas, while also spinning domestic fossil fuel production and the rise of Canada as our largest source of oil imports as a move away from the tumultuous geopolitics of Middle Eastern oil. Forbes writes,

“The good news about high U.S. oil imports is that neighbor, ally, and democratic Canada has displaced the more risky and undemocratic OPEC members… In almost all categories, the Saudi Arabia-led OPEC nations are ranked as ‘not free,’ with the oppression of women scarily common. Canada, meanwhile, might be the ‘freest nation’ on Earth” (Clemente 2017).

Holding aside for the moment the reality that despite increased production, the U.S. remains a net importer of oil[1], my interests in this essay are to probe what this emerging “energy independence” looks like on the ground. While the energy boom has created jobs in North Dakota, it has also created crises of homelessness, drug abuse, and domestic and sexual violence in shale producing regions. And while it is unsurprising that the writers at Forbes would breathlessly describe Canada as the “freest nation,” this of course ignores the neoliberal machinations of the Canadian state in which the public has been asked to assume the risks associated with energy production while private actors reap all the rewards. It is these questions around who benefits and who loses – in short, political questions – that need to be asked about energy independence.

Over the past year, I have been researching the North American energy boom and the ways in which it is reworking environments and livelihoods in the Great Lakes, focusing in particular on oil distribution and refining in the Calumet region of Chicago, which stretches from the far South Side of the city into Northwest Indiana, hugging Lake Michigan’s southern coastline. Activists there have described the energy boom as a process of “re-industrialization” (Schnurr 2017) as distribution technologies, like pipelines and rail capacity, and production facilities, like the BP refinery in Whiting, Indiana, expand to meet rising supplies of fossil fuels. The growth of these infrastructures and production facilities have had important impacts on a region that has long been asked to trade environmental and public health in exchange for economic productivity.

Figure 1: One of the main fixtures of BP’s tar sands renovation is the coking tower, pictured on left

In short, these are the sacrifice zones of fossil fuel capitalism, the negative exposure that disappears in the hype around jobs, growth, and “freedom” from Middle Eastern geopolitics. As bipartisan coalitions of policymakers celebrate the American energy boom, the costs are born unequally in communities that have long been the sacrificial lambs of the growth machine. The Calumet region is what one local activist described to me as an “industrial colony.”  Indeed, the celebration of energy independence rests upon a colonial logic in which the maintenance of empire and elite rule relies upon the occupation and death of others. This perspective comes most clearly into view when examining energy independence not at the level of GDP or trade balances, but at the local and regional scale where the privatization of profits and socialization of risk is most readily visible.

For example, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines have drawn significant political attention as symbols of climate injustice but are dwarfed in size by the already existing Enbridge Mainline pipeline system that crisscrosses the Great Lakes and delivers more oil per day from Canada than the U.S. imports from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Mexico combined (Egan 2017)[2]. Moreover, the Enbridge Mainline system is responsible for the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, which spilled some 840,000 gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010 (Schnurr 2017). This system is currently expanding to accommodate additional Canadian production, which raises additional threats to the drinking water supply for 40 million people (Egan 2017). Despite significant grassroots opposition to the creation of new pipelines and the expansion of existing ones in the Enbridge Mainline system, powerful alliances of corporate and state power are driving these projects forward.

These pipelines, and the storage facilities they connect to in places like Griffith, Indiana, outside of Chicago, in turn connect to refineries around the Great Lakes in both the U.S. and Canada, where the “carbon bomb” (McKibben 2011) embedded in these unconventional fossil fuels is made accessible to consumers. The largest concentration of refineries in the U.S. is along the Gulf Coast between Texas and Louisiana, but the Great Lakes region is also an important recipient of unconventional fossil fuels. For example, the BP refinery just outside of Chicago in Whiting, which is the largest and oldest inland refinery in the U.S., completed a $4.3 billion-dollar renovation in 2013 specifically so that the facility could process the heavier tar sands coming from Alberta (see Figure 1). The upgrades allow BP to process over 400,000 barrels of oil per day, 80% of which is now heavy Canadian crude, up from 20% in the past (BP 2014). This pivot towards tar sands led to a tripling of petcoke production, which is a hydrocarbon “residue” produced by refining tar sands that can be sold to power plants as a fuel source. From 2013 – 2015, an estimated 2 million tons of petcoke was being stored in uncovered piles directly next to residential areas, generating protest around threats to health as petcoke dust covered homes, cars, and windows (Hawthorne 2013; Geertsma 2015). Protests from residents and action from the City of Chicago halted the storage of uncovered petcoke in Calumet in 2015, but the Whiting refinery continues to produce petcoke, and train cars of uncovered petcoke can be seen in the area as they transit to sites in Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Virginia.

Even as the piles of petcoke have been forced to move elsewhere, the Calumet region continues to suffer the consequences of growing domestic fossil fuel production. Since 1889, the communities near the refinery have faced constant exposure from air, water, and land-based emissions not just from refining, but also from steel and auto-related industries.


Figure 2: The EPA’s EJSCREEN data for an area within a 5-mile radius of the BP refinery in Whiting. The table displays state, regional, and national percentiles for 11 different environmental indicators and 7 demographic characteristics. A full glossary of the environmental indicators is available here

For example, using the U.S. EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool (EJSCREEN) to map the relationship between environmental indicators and population characteristics, I created a table to show that communities within a 5-mile radius of the BP refinery in Whiting are disproportionately minority and low-income, and also face disproportionate exposure/risk/proximity to facilities than the state, regional, and national averages (Figure 2). These are neighborhoods that are not prospering, despite being located near some of the most important petroleum, steel, and auto industries in the Great Lakes. Ted Auch of the Fractracker Alliance put together a data set that shows that, on average, residents of census tracts that contain oil refineries earn 13-16% less than those in the greater region and/or Metropolitan Statistical Areas (Auch 2016).  I created another map using Auch’s data to zero in on the BP refinery in Whiting, and it paints a similarly grim picture (Figure 3). Diving in a bit further using Census data, I found that 26% of workers making more than $3,333 per month in the Whiting refinery’s census block lived within 10 miles of the refinery. However, of the workers that make $1,250 per month or less, nearly double that number – 44% — live within 10 miles of the refinery. The fact that the lowest income earners in at the BP refinery are the most likely to live in an area that has higher than average environmental hazards shows that even when BP is creating jobs in the Calumet region, the poorest workers suffer disproportionately in terms of exposure to health hazards.

Figure 3: 2016 Mean Income of Census Tracts Within Proximity to BP Refinery

Additionally, as part of the aforementioned renovation to process heavy Canadian crude oil, BP has begun buying property and demolishing homes in the refinery-adjacent Marktown community of Northwest Indiana, with as many as 52 properties purchased by the company between 2012-2017. The rationale claimed for buying out Marktown has been for BP to create more parking and “green space” near the refinery, but in driving through the refinery with a local activist in spring 2018, there was no shortage of parking on the sprawling 1,700 acre refinery property. Instead of creating parking or green space, BP seems interested in demolishing Marktown as a way to reduce their liability from future lawsuits related to environmental exposure (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Historic homes in Marktown, designed in the “English-village” style by architect Howard van Doren Shaw

The 200 people still living in Marktown, a historic community built for steelworkers in 1917, face the prospect of displacement as a result of expanded refining. Indeed, if Marktown were to disappear, it would be following in the footsteps of two other Calumet communities completely displaced by the forces of institutional racism, environmental exposure, and corporate power: the Brickyard in the 1990s, an African-American community uprooted by a chemical company; and the West Calumet Housing Complex, a public housing project currently being demolished because of widespread lead contamination stemming from prior industrial land uses on site. While energy interests do not exclusively drive the production of the Calumet region as a sacrifice zone, it is possible that continued growth of domestic energy production will lead to further conflicts over not just public health, environmental quality, and climate change, but over land rights and tenure. As Auch (2016) notes, the subject of climate refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) arising from rising sea levels, droughts, and floods has drawn significant attention from journalists in recent years. But, as he states

“The issues associated with oil and gas infrastructure expansion and IDPs are only going to grow in the coming years as the Shale Revolution results in a greater need for pipelines, compressor stations, cracker facilities, etc. We would propose there is the potential for IDPs resulting from the rapid, ubiquitous, and intense expansion of the Hydrocarbon Industrial Complex here in the United States.”

The struggle for Marktown is emblematic of ongoing debates about the future of the region: the refinery’s specialized renovations lock in demand for dirty tar sands oil, which in turn imperils fence line communities as well as the global atmosphere. This entrenchment of the hydrocarbon industrial complex undermines land tenure but also contemporary efforts to reimagine the future of Calumet in other ways, as many residents, policymakers, business leaders, scientists, and activists have expressed interest in developing a “green industrial corridor”, restoring habitat for native species, and remaking the region as a hub for recreational tourism. But one of the stumbling blocks to any “accumulation by conservation” (Büscher and Fletcher 2014; see also Fairhead et al 2012; Kay 2017) is that the historical and ongoing land, air, and water pollution from BP (and many others) make both large-scale commercial redevelopment and ecological restoration (for wetland banking, offsets, ecotourism, etc.) prohibitively expensive due to remediation requirements.


The re-industrialization of Calumet is occurring precisely at the time when a transition towards renewable energy seems not only necessary, but also economically and technologically possible. The limits of the biosphere to absorb surplus carbon emissions are more readily obvious than ever, making carbon pricing and regulation seemingly inevitable. Moreover, the growth of the renewable energy sector, driven by highly uneven state support and the “cleantech” opportunism of Silicon Valley (Knuth 2017), also calls into question the continued viability of fossil fuel infrastructures whose role in everyday life have long been taken for granted. While we are far from seeing the death knell of fossil fuels in the U.S., the specter of devaluation of fossil fuel infrastructure and assets is on the horizon (Knuth 2017; McCarthy 2015; Castree and Christophers 2015). The renewable energy regimes that come next must be radically different, not just in terms of energy source but also in their social and political constitution. As I have attempted to show here, energy independence rests upon the perpetuation of sacrifice zones such as the Calumet region. In order for a more sustainable energy regime to take hold, movements like those against the Dakota Access Pipeline must continue to call into the question the legitimacy of the fossil fuel order and its constitutive social and environmental relations. In doing, so new discursive ground can be laid in which energy independence can be redefined with a commitment to justice and equity at the local and global scales.


[1] “This curious state of affairs in American crude oil imports and exports results from not having enough refining capacity for the kind of oil coming out of the country’s shale oil deposits, more properly called tight oil. That oil is too “light” for many American refineries. Therefore, much of it is shipped abroad to refineries with the capability to refine it. The United States tends to import heavier crudes that match its overall refinery capabilities” (Cobb 2018).

[2] The Keystone XL pipeline will deliver 830,000 barrels per day (bpd) and the Dakota Access Pipeline will move 470,000 bpd. The Enbridge Mainline (which consists of multiple pipelines) currently has a capacity of around 2.5 million bpd, with plans to expand to nearly 3 million bpd. This is roughly 20% of U.S. oil imports (Egan 2017).

Works Cited

Anderson, J. (2017) Will Marktown Survive? East Chicago Neighborhood Fights To Stay Alive. July 22. The Chicago Tribune.

Auch, T. (2016) US Oil Refineries and Economic Justice. FracTracker Alliance.August 24.

Beavers, J. (2016) The Petcoke Problem: Where to Store the Risky Tar Sands Refining By-Product. Natural Resources Defense Council. November 1.

Büscher, B. and Fletcher, R. (2014): Accumulation by Conservation, New Political Economy 20(2): 273-298. 10.1080/13563467.2014.923824

Campbell, M. (1994) Island Of Fear. Under Law, East Chicago’s Brickyard Not Zoned. Northwest Indiana Times. May 29.

Calumet Collaborative.

Castree, N. and Christophers, B. (2015) Banking Spatially on the Future: Capital Switching, Infrastructure, and the Ecological Fix. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 105(2): 378-386.

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Conlin, M. (2014) Hot Economy, Cold Comfort: North Dakota’s Homeless Problem. Reuters. February 11.

Egan, D. (2017) Greasing Oil’s Path. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. November 9.

Fairhead, J., Leach, M., and Scoones, I. (2012) Green Grabbing: A New Appropriation of Nature? The Journal of Peasant Studies 39(2): 237-261.

Furman, J. and Stock, J. (2014) “New Report: The All-of-the-Above Energy Strategy as a Path to Sustainable Economic Growth”. May 29th.

Harris, K. (2018) Liberals To Buy Trans Mountain Pipeline For $4.5B To Ensure Expansion Is Built. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. May 29.

Honor the Earth campaign.

Horwitz, S. (2014) Dark Side Of The Boom: North Dakota’s Oil Rush Brings Cash And Promise To Reservation, Along With Drug-Fueled Crime. The Washington Post.

International Energy Agency. (2017) Renewables 2017.

Kay, K. (2017) A Hostile Takeover of Nature? Placing Value in Conservation Finance. Antipode 50(1): 164-183. 10.1111/anti.12335.

Knuth, S. (2017) Green Devaluation: Disruption, Divestment, and Decommodification for a Green Economy. Capitalism Nature Socialism 28(1): 98-117.

Lyons, C. (2018) Crews Ready To Demolish West Calumet Housing Complex After Evacuations Due To Lead And Arsenic. The Chicago Tribune. March 23.

McCarthy, J. (2015) A Socioecological Fix to Capitalist Crisis and Climate Change? The Possibilities and Limits of Renewable Energy. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 47(1): 1-18.

Reuters staff. (2017) Enbridge’s Line 3 Oil Pipeline Upgrade Challenged By Minnesota Government. Reuters. September 11.

Southeast Environmental Task Force (no date). The Green Economic Industrial Corridor.

Stockman, L. (2013) Petroleum Coke: The Coal Hiding in the Tar Sands. Oil Change International. January 17

Wikipedia contributors. (2017, October 12). Tight oil. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:43, August 10, 2018, from

Graham Pickren is a geographer and an Assistant Professor of Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University in Chicago. He is currently working on a research project that unpacks Chicago’s role in the global fossil fuel economy.