A reader writes:
This is an issue that chafes me to the core. I’m an oil and gas attorney in Houston (although I’m moving in-house with a Dallas-based midstream pipeline company next week). The political parties are strangely upside-down on this issue. Not only are Republican claims of job-creation largely false, but Democrats and environmental activists in particular have not grasped that alternatives to pipeline transportation of production – oil trains and tanker trucks – are inherently more dangerous.
Not like, I-forgot-to-wear-my-seatbelt-to-the-grocery-store more dangerous. I’m talking about a failure/spill incidence close to 5,000x greater than most pipelines.
Google the Lac Megantic disaster in Quebec in July 2013, or the oil train explosion in Aliceville, Alabama last November, or the James River derailment in Lynchburg, Virginia this past August. Oil trains literally explode into fireballs about once every six months! In each case, the damage and contamination is mind-bending.
This is not to say that pipelines are perfectly safe; they are not. But if you’re trying to protect the environment and you know that fossil fuels will be around for at least another generation, you should advocate for more pipelines and tighter safety and inspection standards. This isn’t a hard or unrealistic political goal for the environmental movement: interstate pipelines are already under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the bulk of whose regulations are determined by the executive branch, not Congress.
But another reader emphasizes the risks of a pipeline:
How much does Keystone matter? Potentially quite a bit. You quoted Rebecca Leber as saying, “In the end, most Americans wouldn’t notice Keystone’s impact – both good and bad.” The people who do have a good chance of noticing its impact would be those who depend upon the soil and water along its path. They are the classic case of people having to socialize risk while others privatize the reward.
A publication out of Cornell University (pdf) found that TransCanada and the first stage of the Keystone pipeline, completed in 2010, have a pretty poor track record when it comes to spills:
TransCanada has claimed that Keystone XL will be the “safest pipeline in the U.S.” However, since the initial Keystone 1 pipeline began operation in June 2010, at least 35 spills have occurred in the U.S. and Canada. In its first year, the U.S. section of Keystone 1 had a spill frequency 100 times greater than TransCanada forecast. In June 2011, federal pipeline safety regulators determined Keystone 1 was a hazard to public safety and issued TransCanada a Corrective Action Order.
To make matters worse, the type of heavy tar sand oil they transport is more corrosive and appears to be the cause of more frequent spills that result in more difficult cleanups:
There is evidence that pipelines transporting diluted bitumen tar sands oil have a higher frequency of spills than pipelines carrying conventional crude. Between 2007 and 2010, pipelines transporting diluted bitumen tar sands oil in the northern Midwest spilled three times more oil per mile than the national average for conventional crude oil. The relatively high spill record of pipelines transporting diluted bitumen has raised concerns about the spill potential of Keystone XL and other proposed tar sands pipelines. Diluted bitumen is heavier, more corrosive, and contains more toxic chemicals and compounds than conventional crude oil. There is also evidence that tar sands pipeline spills inflict more damage than spills from conventional crude pipelines. Tar sands oil spills are more difficult to clean up, and the diluted bitumen’s toxic and corrosive qualities may increase the overall negative impacts to the economy and public health.
More generally, Elizabeth Kolbert argues that Keystone is important because “it illustrates a basic point,” that the “U.S.—and the world more generally—cannot reduce carbon emissions while at the same time continuing to exploit every fossil-fuel source that presents itself”:
Even as it has been tightening fuel-efficiency standards and regulating power plants, the Obama Administration has presided over a dramatic expansion of U.S. fuel production, which has included a sixty per cent increase in domestic oil output. The Administration doesn’t deserve all of the blame—or, depending on your outlook, the credit—for this development; many of the relevant leases were issued under the Bush Administration. Still, the result has been an energy policy that’s really no energy policy at all—a one-from-Column-A, one-from-Column-B approach that may have marginally reduced domestic emissions, but probably has helped to increase them abroad. Since 2008, coal exports from the U.S. have nearly doubled.
Along the same lines, opposition to Keystone has served a purpose insofar as it has slowed down development of Canada’s tar sands. Earlier this month, Jeff Spross passed along a report to that effect:
The report — Material Risk: How Public Accountability Is Slowing Tar Sands Development — looked into the delays and project cancellations that have been caused by public opposition to the development of the tar sands. The ongoing battle over the Keystone XL pipeline is the most prominent example. But what it all adds up to is transportation bottlenecks, and falling profits for the industry even as crude oil has kept flooding in from Canada’s tar sands fields.
That difference between what oil companies have sold and what they could have sold in the absence of the bottlenecks amounts to $30.9 billion from 2010 through 2013, according to the analysis. A good portion of that is from the inevitable changes and risks that come along with any marketplace. But after going through the various circumstances of the last few years, and teasing out various signals in the data, the researchers concluded that $17.1 billion (or 55 percent) of that “can be credibly attributed to the impact of public accountability campaigns.”