FOR the average environmentalist, the choice between moving crude oil by train versus moving it by pipeline is a no-brainer.
As in brainless.
It's not a false choice to say pipelines are safer than trains for transporting crude. It is a false choice to say neither pipelines nor rail tank cars should be needed because renewable fuels can carry the load.
Sierra Club official Michael Marx can't even use the word “oil” without putting the word “extreme” in front of it. But the only extremism here is the belief that the Sierra Club's “Beyond Coal” and “Beyond Oil” campaigns are tilting at more than windmills. Americans like renewable energy but they also like to drive, fly, heat and cool their homes and watch football games on TVs, mostly powered by affordable, reliable fossil fuels.
Which brings us back to choices.
Spikes in oil supplies have outrun the supply of pipelines to transport that oil. The result has been a spike in oil shipments by rail. One result of that is a series of train wrecks, including one that killed 47 people in Canada last summer. Pipelines also have accidents, but they tend not to kill people.
Building pipelines is an invasive, messy affair during construction but not afterward. Same goes for laying railroad tracks or building freeways. There the comparison ends. Pipelines lie underground and do their work, quietly and out of sight. Trains and cars move above the surface and sometimes get in accidents.
The same presidential administration that has granted a 30-year waiver on liability for bird deaths caused by windmills has blocked construction of the Keystone XL pipeline's northern leg. The same protesters who pointlessly railed against the Keystone's southern leg used fossil fuels to motor between protest venues. Much of the oil going out by rail could be going by pipeline.
That rail transport of oil poses more of a threat to humans than a pipeline is of little interest to environmentalists. To them, both methods of transport are equally bad because fossil fuels shouldn't be transported at all.
This nation doesn't have to choose between fossil fuels and renewables. It can, through market decisions and public policy, continue to grow the supply of renewables while making the production and transportation of fossil fuels as safe as possible. Windmills will kill birds from time to time and disrupt animal habitats. But that's not a warrant to block construction of wind farms or shut down existing ones.
“The rising number of serious accidents involving oil tank cars of the past 12 months,” Reuters reported Monday, “suggests that shippers are underestimating the safety risk of transporting crude by rail.”
In principle, shipping oil by rail carries only a slightly higher risk than shipping it by pipeline. Pipelines rarely cause spills; explosions are rare. However, a pipeline rupture has the potential for a much larger spill than a train wreck. Tank car spills are more frequent but generally involve less quantity.
“Historically,” Reuters said, “there have been few significant spills, fires or explosions associated with shipping crude by rail. But the actual volume shipped and number of tank cars and trains involved were small until recently.”
What differentiates the two methods of transport is that tank cars pass through populated areas. Yet environmentalists have been rabid in their protest of pipelines and mum on tank cars. This suggests they put a higher priority on pipeline spills that may pollute a creek (for a limited time) than they do on train wrecks that kill people (permanently).
Of course, their answer is to stop both methods of transport. That day will surely come. In the meantime, the administration should rethink its reticence to approve pipeline projects.
The choice that officials are making isn't a false one. It's potentially a deadly one.