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The Cost of Blocking Pipelines

Oil Boom Shifts The Landscape Of Rural North Dakota

There was another oil spill over the weekend, this time in Canada, and this time the result of a derailed train. This comes on the heels of a pipeline leak in North Dakota two weeks ago, and a catastrophic rail explosion in Quebec in July. The train that derailed in Alberta on Saturday carried four cars of crude and nine of propane; the propane cars caught fire and were still burning on Monday.

Alberta’s booming oil sands are straining its transportation infrastructure, and while the Obama administration continues to delay its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline—a project that would bring Canadian crude down to America’s Gulf Coast refineries—trucks and railroads are transporting more and more oil. As Bloomberg reports, the safety record for Canada’s railroads leaves much to be desired:

CN Rail’s weekend crash in Gainford followed the derailment last week of a CN Rail train carrying anhydrous ammonia in Sexsmith, Alberta and a derailment last month of a CN Rail train that sent 17 cars off the track, one of them leaking oil, in Landis, Saskatchewan. There were no injuries in each of the incidents. […]

A Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. (CP) train carrying so-called diluent, a light petroleum product used to dilute oil-sands bitumen, also derailed last month in one of the Calgary company’s rail yards, less than three months after a bridge holding a CP train carrying diluent buckled over the flooded Bow River.

Pipelines are the safest way to transport oil, but green opposition to the Keystone has forced Canada’s oil producers into using more expensive and dangerous alternatives. One study estimated that railroads suffer 2.7 times as many spills as pipelines. Alex Pourbaix, TransCanada’s president of energy and oil pipelines, put it this way: “I do not believe if you care about the environment, if you care about safety, if you care about the cost of transportation [that delaying pipelines makes] any sense, long term.” Granted, Pourbaix has a vested interest in promoting pipelines (TransCanada is working to build Keystone), but the evidence speaks for itself on this issue.

We can distill the battle over Keystone down to one simple fact: Alberta’s tar sands oil is coming out of the ground one way or another. If you’re a dogmatic environmentalist, you have to ignore that fact and convince yourself that blocking Keystone will stop the region’s oil extraction. But acknowledging reality means recognizing that the Keystone XL pipeline is the safest, greenest option on the table. Block it at the earth’s peril, greens.

[Construction workers specializing in pipe-laying work on a section of pipeline on July 25, 2013 outside Watford City, North Dakota. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.]

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  • S.C. Schwarz

    The greens don’t just want to stop Keystone XL they want to roll back fossil (and nuclear and hydro) energy development of all kinds. When a an oil spill occurs, be it from a train, pipeline or truck, that’s a good thing as it can be spun to exaggerate the dangers.

    Blocking Keystone is working as intended.

    • Kavanna

      Exactly. BTW, pipelines are far more environmentally friendly that rail transport of oil and gas. But Warren Buffett doesn’t own pipelines. He does own a railroad and advises Obama ….

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