The debate over the Keystone XL vs. railcar transport can be likened to the safety of offshore vs. onshore oil production. By putting nearly 60% of potentially oil-rich onshore lands off limits, we have forced exploration and production offshore. Oil production onshore is safer than offshore just as pipelines are safer than tank cars. While the Deep Water Horizon oil spill well gushed nearly five million barrels into the Gulf of Mexico over an 87-day period beginning on April 20, 2010, a blowout in western Pennsylvania in June (while Deep Water Horizon was spilling) was capped in 16 hours and spilled only a few thousand gallons.
Similarly, pipeline spills are more easily controlled and cleaned up than are tank-car derailments. With so many railroads running along waterways and wetlands, 17-mile-long oil slicks, like the one from the Lynchburg derailment, will be more common. In contrast, the State Department reports that the Keystone XL would drill under rivers to avoid “direct disturbance to the river bed, fish, aquatic animals and plants, and river banks.” Moreover, between 1992 and 2011, 40% of the liquids spilled from pipelines was recovered.
Putting the debate over the Keystone XL in this context shows the absurdity of killing the pipeline project. But the Obama administration appears determined to accept environmental arguments that the pipeline could leak (even though the likelihood is less than with rail) and that with the extraction and use of oil from Alberta, Canada’s oil sands will increase global warming. On the latter point, the State Department report again is clear that net carbon emissions won’t be much different with or without the Keystone XL—because the Canadian tar sands will likely be developed regardless of how the oil is transported and because trains emit more carbon dioxide than pipelines.