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There is currently no crude oil moved by tank ships (or “tankers”) on the Great Lakes, though relatively small quantities of crude oil are transported to refineries by barge on rivers and canals within the basin. Despite having no active shipping routes, the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River do present a potential route for the efficient movement of crude oil by ship from the coast to inland refineries. While transportation by ship is safer than train or truck in terms of likelihood of a spill, past incidents in other regions have shown that spills from tankers can have unique challenges for cleanup and far-reaching environmental consequences.

Where is there potential for oil transport by ship in the Great Lakes region?

Currently no crude oil is actively transported by tankers on the Great Lakes. The map below shows major Great Lakes shipping routes and ports/terminals accessible by ship or barge that currently handle, store, or process crude oil (received from other transportation modes). These represent likely points for movement of crude oil, should it ever be shipped on the Great Lakes. Data sources: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

What are the benefits of oil transport by ship?

  • Efficient movement of crude oil from coasts to inland refineries
  • Large tank capacity compared to rail or truck
  • Existing infrastructure in the region including a vessel traffic control system that tracks the position of every vessel in the system
  • Highly cost efficient
  • Lower spill incidence compared to rail and truck
  • Increased jobs in the maritime sector
  • Lower environmental impact compared to truck or railroad during normal operation

What are potential drawbacks of oil transport by ship?

  • Spill incidents occur directly in bodies of water
  • Higher spill volumes compared to rail or truck
  • Spill response challenges especially in high wind, currents, or partially-frozen conditions
  • Increased vessel traffic leading to higher risk of accidents

What causes spills to occur?

  • Errors leading to ship to ship collisions, groundings, and collisions with fixed objects
  • Errors leading to lack of maintenance or improper maintenance
  • Ship damage from ice or storms
  • Loading, unloading, and inter-modal transfer errors


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For more information on shipping on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River go to