Tragedy struck in the idyllic town of Lac Megantic, Quebec this weekend. A 73-car oil-laden train derailed and exploded early Saturday. Five people died, and the crash site is still too hot—more than 50 hours later—to look for 40 missing people.
The implications of the accident extend much further than the small border town: crashes like this are why greens should be supporting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
Canada has a lot of oil. Much of that is trapped in Alberta’s oil sands, and it is of a particularly heavy and dirty-burning variety. But Canada does not have a lot of oil infrastructure. It lacks the pipelines and the refineries needed to take advantage of its bounty.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would solve this problem by bringing Canadian oil down to American refineries along the Gulf Coast. Prominent greens like James Hanson and Bill McKibben see the approval of this pipeline as “game over” for the climate, due to the amount of greenhouse gas this oil would emit when burned.
Here’s why they’re wrong: that oil is coming out of the ground whether the pipeline is built or not. Canada is considering building a pipeline west to its Pacific coast, where it could be then transported by ship. British Columbia, home to a large number of greens, has so far been able to throw a wrench into this plan. So, lacking any proper pipeline infrastructure, companies are shipping oil by train. And not in trickles, either: Canada’s rail shipments of oil have increased by 28,000 percent since 2009.
Which brings us to Saturday’s tragedy. Accidents happen, and no method of oil transportation is 100 percent “safe.” The industry, like many others, strives to minimize risk, knowing it can’t eliminate them. That being said, pipelines are safer than trains.
What does this tragedy mean for the future of the Keystone XL pipeline? If greens had any sense, they would be clamoring for the Obama administration to approve it. The oil is coming out whether the pipeline is built or not. At this point, it’s about minimizing the risk of events like the Lac Megantic accident.
President Obama hinted that he might approve the pipeline in his recent climate speech. For the environment’s sake, let’s hope he follows through.