The false safety promise of Keystone XL

The recent spate of train derailments is concerning, but it's no reason to support a pipeline

Published January 8, 2014 9:55PM (EST)

Tuesday night, a train in New Brunswick, Canada careened off the rail. Dozens were evacuated as the derailed cars, which carried crude oil and propane, burned well into Wednesday.

This followed an accident last week in North Dakota, where a train derailed and exploded in what was described as a "giant fireball", along with three other incidents over the past year, one of which, in Quebec, resulted in the deaths of 47 people.

Edward McConnell, mayor of the town that narrowly avoided catastrophe last week, called the crash a "wake-up call." In an interview with Midwest Energy News, he said, “Environmentalists are complaining that pipelines are dangerous to the environment, but if you’re going to wreck some land, it’s not as bad as blowing up a town."

McConnell isn't the only one to question the significant risks of rail transport -- and to argue that a pipeline is the logical solution.

Yet one need only look at Mayflower, Arkansas, where a pipeline rupture spewed at least 200,000 gallons of tar sands crude into the community last April, , to know that a pipeline wouldn't quell safety concerns. Less dramatic than a fireball (although the images of black sludge infiltrating suburban yards were plenty disturbing), its environmental impact was nonetheless severe -- and the threat to Mayflower's residents was far from negligent. In the days and months following the spill, those exposed to the oil suffered a host of devastating health problems. And this was only one example of many: between 2008 and 2012, according to the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, U.S. pipelines spilled an average of over 3.1 million gallons of hazardous liquids per year.

Using examples like Mayflower to argue that pipelines are just as dangerous as trains is misleading, said Bob Schulz, a professor at the University of Calgary. He argues that such numbers don't paint an accurate portrait of pipeline safety because most spills have occurred in older pipelines. The Pegasus pipeline, which ruptured in Mayflower, was 65 years old, and its operator, Exxon Mobile, had previously been fined by the U.S. Department of Transportation for failing to properly inspect it over the past decade. Keystone, said Schulz, will be physically superior to the older models and will be subject to more robust monitoring.

Of course, the segment of Keystone that runs from Canada to Oklahoma itself leaked 12 times in its first 12 months of operations, and a report from the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen identified 125 potential "anomalies" along Keystone XL's completed southern leg.

When it comes down to it, though, questioning whether one form of transport is safer than the other is beside the point. "I think it's apples and oranges, and I haven't seen a good barrel-per-barrel comparison of the two," said Stephen Kretzmann of Washington-based group Oil Change International. "But I think it's just the wrong question to be asking. I don't know why you would say 'What's the best way of doing what we know we shouldn't be doing?'"

"The biggest danger by far comes from the clouds of carbon that will pour out of this oil,"'s Bill McKibben told Salon in an email. Kretzmann, anticipating both the activist's response and the skepticism that this response might raise, added, "This is not just coming from Bill McKibben." The International Energy Agency, along with other respected climate scientists and organization, has made it clear: two-thirds of our remaining fossil fuels have to remain in the ground if we're to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Schulz laughed at the idea that abandoning Keystone would mean abandoning the riches Canada's oil sands. If Keystone doesn't move the oil, he said, trains will -- and already are. “You have no idea how much is already underway," he said. And sure enough, oil is already being whisked away by rail at a rate of hundreds of thousands of barrels per day, and growing. "If you’re really worried about safety," Schulz argued, "why wouldn’t you put it in a pipeline?”

Kretzmann disagrees, arguing that while oil companies may be turning to rail as an alternative, "they're not happy about it." Anthony Swift, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, agrees. "If you look at how the tar sands producers themselves describe it, this is an emergency option that they're turning to while they wait for pipeline," he said. Getting Canada's oil to the Gulf via rail will cost as much as $7 to $8 dollars more per barrel. And studies have found that, while rail transport might grow in lieu of a pipeline, the high cost, combined with technical and logistical barriers, would prevent it from fully replacing Keystone's capacity to transport oil.

You can waste a lot of time getting into the relative safety of rail transport versus pipelines, or of the flammability of the oil derived from North Dakota's Bakken shale as compared to Canada's oil sands. You can cite federal data finding that oil train derailments are more common, but that pipeline spills, on average, are larger. You can speak of people being forced out of their homes as a plume of acrid smoke blows in their direction or as a river of oil floods their town. All of those risks, said Swift, "are a cost of our dependence on oil. And one that we need to factor in when making a decision on which energy sources we move into the 21st century using."

By Lindsay Abrams

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Fossil Fuels Keystone Xl Pipeline Oil Train Tar Sands