July 15, 2013: The news out of Lac-Megantic Quebec these days is heartbreaking. Dozens are dead and much of the town’s business district has been flattened. In the following video clip, Lac-Megantic resident Amanada Gabrielle tells CBS This Morning, “I lost everything, so it’s hard; I don’t have nobody here so I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”
Watch the clip to the end, and you’ll see this conversation between anchors Nora O’Donnell and Anthony Mason about the exponential growth in crude-by-rail shipments:
O’Donnell: “This is a real safety concern here in the United States as well.”
Mason: “It’s in part because they don’t have pipelines.”
For proponents of the Keystone XL, Mason’s remark is a no-brainer; block access to pipelines, and oil and other hazardous materials will find other ways to market, including rail, road, and barge. While these other modes of transport will always play a role in moving products from producers to consumers, consistently fighting against the safest, most reliable, most regulated form of transport – pipelines – makes no sense if one truly cares about the environment.
Many pipeline opponents would counter that the way to prevent future oil-related disasters is to shed our dependence on oil altogether, and that’s a very valid point. Crude oil is dirty, nasty, toxic, dangerous stuff, no matter how it is transported. It is also a non-renewable, finite resource. But suggesting that we must choose between the safest mode of shipment and reduced dependence is a false dichotomy that could do real harm if it kills the KXL and diverts oil to those riskier alternatives.
If blocking the KXL would slow or stop development of Alberta’s oil sands, and that development were as bad for the environment as its detractors claim, then maybe environmentalist opposition to the KXL would be justified. But both of those rather large hypothetical statements are proving false. In a series of articles, Robert Rapier, Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President of renewable energy company Merica International, has demonstrated that continued growth of oil sands development with or without the KXL isn’t just a foregone conclusion; it is an established fact, as demonstrated in the following graph.
Note that the sharpest increase in development has occurred over the past six years, even without adequate pipeline capacity. Where is that increased production going? To the very means of transport opponents claim is not a viable alternative to the KXL: rail.
In “Protesting Keystone XL While Rome Burns,” Rapier writes,
“If Keystone XL is stopped but the demand for petroleum remains, then the oil is going to find its way to market via more inefficient means of transport. . . . [KXL opponents] will insist that rail can’t scale up to take away Keystone-like volumes of oil — and yet the railroads are already doing just that. We don’t have to speculate whether it can be done. It is being done. . . .”
“. . . while [KXL] protesters assume that if they shut down the pipeline the oil won’t be produced (or at least development will be slowed), the reality may be increased carbon emissions and decreased safety. . . .”
Worse yet, while pipeline construction and expansion is subject to exhaustive regulatory review, the expansion of crude-by-rail shipments is subject to little or no regular regulatory review. In a candid display of hypocrisy, Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer Anthony Swift, being interviewed by the New York Times, bemoaned the very expansion his group’s opposition to pipelines has spurred.
“We have an explosion of tight oil production in Canada and the United States, and most of it is moving by train, . . . but this process has happened without due diligence.”
Of course, if development of the oil sands alone were going to cause the kind of civilization-ending, cataclysmic climate disaster that opponents of the KXL predict it will, then Swift and others might be excused for blasting rail after blocking pipelines.
Yet in both “Protesting Keystone XL While Rome Burns,” and “The Keystone XL Pipeline Is Irrelevant,” Robert Rapier marshals reams of statistics and data to demonstrate that the net climate-change effect of continued development of the oil sands will be negligible, even under worst-case scenarios. Rapier is not alone in this conclusion. The British science journal Nature last year reported that climate researchers Andrew Weaver and Neil Swart had published a study concluding that the environmental impact of continued tar sands development would be primarily local, not global, and would have little or no effect on worldwide carbon emissions. The journal’s editors, not exactly oil-and-gas-industry shills, subsequently opined that,
“. . . regarding the Keystone pipeline, the administration should face down critics of the project, ensure that environmental standards are met and then approve it. As Nature has suggested before (see Nature 477, 249; 2011), the pipeline is not going to determine whether the Canadian tar sands are developed or not. Only a broader — and much more important — shift in energy policy will do that.”
Curiously, Fuel Fix reports that the Obama administration may be using its upcoming KXL decision as leverage to effect just such a policy shift by encouraging TransCanada to further reduce its carbon footprint. On July 2, TransCanada announced it was spending $470 million to acquire a solar farm in Ontario, adding to more than $5 billion worth of investments the company has made in other emission-less sources of energy. Critics would no doubt decry this as nothing more than “green washing,” and it would be naive to think that public image has nothing to do with this investment, but if the net result is continued backing for a growing portfolio of alternative energy assets, how is that a bad thing?
Meanwhile, as one of the longest arguments over a single infrastructure project in U.S. history rages on in air-conditioned office buildings, at competing demonstrations, and over backyard fences and barbeques, tens of thousands of highly skilled, safe, productive, union construction workers sit idle through yet another construction season.
That is a disgrace.