The latest Keystone spin: Pipeline "would save 6 lives a year"

Why misleading claims about the pipeline's safety entirely miss the point

By Lindsay Abrams

Published February 4, 2014 9:18PM (EST)

The State Department impact report on Keystone XL, released Friday, was kept intentionally neutral, giving both opponents and supporters ample opportunity to seize on as many tidbits from its 1,000-plus pages as possible to justify their position. Advocates, for example, are crowing that the pipeline will create 1,950 jobs for the two years of its construction, while environmentalists are pointing to comments made last summer by President Obama, who mocked Republicans by pointing out that "after that we're talking about somewhere between 50 and 100 jobs in an economy of 150 million working people."

That's how this Newsweek headline came about: "Keystone Pipeline Would Save 6 Lives a Year, Report Says." It's a manipulative repackaging of a Reuters article, which originally had the slightly less emotional headline: "Without Keystone, oil trains may cause six deaths per year: U.S. State Department report."

The section of the report highlighted here took a break from Keystone's environmental impact (likely devastating) to explore the implications of alternative forms of oil transport. Assuming Canada's oil fields are tapped anyway, the report concluded that shipping an extra 830,000 barrels per day of crude oil by rail "would result in an estimated 49 additional injuries and six additional fatalities," compared to just one injury, and no fatalities, via Keystone.

The analysis excludes the oil train that derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, last summer, killing 47 people. So yes, train transport isn't the safest.

In the Reuters article itself, Edward R. Hamberger, the president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, contends that the report made an unfair comparison, by "factor[ing] in casualties that are predominantly those of trespassers on railroad rights of way, unrelated to the hazardous commodities being transported, while limiting pipeline casualties to those who are killed or injured in hazardous liquid spill incidents."

But as I've previously written, any comparison between trains and pipelines, when it comes to crude oil transport, is beside the point. Both come with significant safety concerns, but more important, both are the cost of our continued dependence on oil -- a dependence that, regardless of how we get it, will lead to catastrophic climate change. As the International Energy Agency, along with other respected climate scientists and organizations, have established, the only way to avoid that fate is to leave two-thirds of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

Some other numbers that  might be of interest, for example: 270,833 to 5,708,833. That's the number of cars that would have to be added to U.S. roads in order to match the emissions caused by those 830,000 barrels of oil. They're worth a headline of their own.

Lindsay Abrams

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Barack Obama Keystone Xl Pipeline Oil Industy State Department Tar Sands