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Accident shows need for pipeline

10:45 PM, Jul. 14, 2013  |  Comments
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The train that went off the rails on July 5 was a tragedy for a small Canadian city and more than a dozen people who were killed. The accident adds new questions to the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline and how best to safely move oil in North America.

A runaway locomotive pulling 72 tank cars filled with crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken Range and bound for a refinery in New Brunswick barreled into the town, derailed and set off a massive explosion. About 30 buildings in the downtown business district were incinerated, including a library and a bar filled with customers. An estimated 27,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into waterways.

It's hard to conceive of a buried oil pipeline creating such a disaster. Yet, while there is powerful resistance to building the Keystone XL pipeline through the U.S. midsection, shipments of oil by rail have increased exponentially as a result of the exploitation of oil shale and oil sands in the United States and Canada.

Unless pipeline capacity is increased, the numbers of railroad cars loaded with oil traversing the United States and Canada are expected to continue growing significantly.

It is difficult to fairly compare spill records of various means of transporting oil. While railroads have far more incidents of spills than pipelines, less oil is spilled in each accident. The most meaningful comparison is measuring the total amount of oil spilled per-billion-ton-miles.

According to a study by the Manhattan Institute using that measure, the amount spilled from pipelines was about three times the amount spilled from railroads between 2005 and 2009.

Still, the evidence is hard to refute that moving oil by pipeline is safer for humans, because railroads pass through population centers. It is also the most efficient method, with 80 percent of crude oil and 60 percent of refined petroleum in this county moving by pipeline, with trains and trucks carrying a fraction of the total.

The U.S. State Department's environmental impact study on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline concluded that neither trucks nor rail could be considered viable alternatives.

To move comparable amounts of oil, both rail and trucks would add substantial traffic congestion, consume more energy and contribute more greenhouse gases.

The consequences of our reliance on oil are real and should not be dismissed. But those consequences existed long before the Keystone XL project was proposed.

The only realistic long-range goal for a cleaner planet for today and for future generations is to find alternatives to our reliance on burning fossil fuels.

Until we are serious about that, stopping one pipeline will not make a bit of difference.

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