The environmental impacts of Alberta's oil sands will not be restricted to Western Canada, researchers say, but will extend thousands of kilometres away to the Great Lakes, threatening water and air quality around the world's largest body of fresh water.

In a new report, the University of Toronto's Munk Centre says the massive refinery expansions needed to process tar sands crude, and the new pipeline networks for transporting the fuel, amount to a “pollution delivery system” connecting Alberta to the Great Lakes region of Canada and the U.S.

It warns that the refineries will be using the Great Lakes “as a cheap supply” source for their copious water needs and the area's air “as a pollution dump.”

The report, which is being released today at a conference at the university, says that as many as 17 major refinery expansions around the lakes are being considered for turning the tar-like Alberta bitumen into gasoline and other petroleum products. While not all will be undertaken, enough of them will be to have a regional environmental impact.

Proposed pipeline and refinery projects around the lakes are expected to lead to total investments of more than $31-billion (U.S.) by 2015, spending similar in scale to expenditures at many oil sands projects. For this reason, the report says the various projects, when taken together, threaten to “wipe out many of the pollution control gains” achieved around the lakes since the 1970s.

The massive expenditures are needed because typical refineries can't process heavy crude derived from tar sands without costly upgrades.

“This expansion promises to bring with it an exponential increase in pollution, discharges into waterways including the Great Lakes, destruction of wetlands, toxic air emissions, acid rain, and huge increases in greenhouse gas emissions,” it says.

Most of the projected spending is on the U.S. side of the lakes. Only one major refinery project has been announced for the Canadian side, but that expansion, at a Shell refinery in Sarnia, was put on hold in July because of surging costs.

However, two big Canadian companies, TransCanada Pipelines Ltd. with its Keystone project, and Enbridge Inc., with its Alberta Clipper project, are vying to build pipelines to bring crude from the tar sands to U.S. refineries around the lakes.

The report says the environmental effects in Alberta from tar sands development – from dying ducks caught in tailings ponds to massive carbon dioxide emissions – are well known, but the implications for the Great Lakes “are less well-understood and less extensively explored.”

Policy makers around the lakes, in both Canada and the U.S., are largely unaware that the tar sands will lead to massive industrial development in their region, and consequently have no strategy to minimize the environmental impacts, it says.

Some of the harshest criticism is for the Ontario government, which it characterizes as “remarkably unengaged” over how tar sands oil will affect the province and “doesn't seem to even be asking the key questions, let alone contemplating the possible policy answers.”

There has been one major dispute in the U.S. over a tar sands-related refinery expansion, at a British Petroleum facility at Whiting, Ind. The company proposed a $3-billion refinery modernization that would raise discharges of two pollutants by about 35 per cent and 54 per cent respectively. But it backed down and pledged not to increase the pollutants after a public outcry.

The 54-page report, called How the Oil Sands Got To The Great Lakes Basin, is being issued by the Munk Centre's program on water issues.

Among its recommendations is a call for refineries to offset all of the additional carbon dioxide emissions they produce because of the difficulty of processing oil sands crude.

These emissions are estimated at 2.3 million tonnes a year, or about the same amount as produced by about 500,000 typically driven cars. Another recommendation is to require all refinery expansions to meet California's strict air-pollution standards, the toughest in North America.