If We Manage to Stop Keystone, Are the Alternatives Better?

This is another one of those issues that too many progressives see in black and white terms that is most certainly somewhere in the grey area of the spectrum.

I am not a fan at all of the Keystone XL Pipeline. But I live in the real world, and stories I’m reading about regarding the transport of oil have made me realize the Keystone issue doesn’t have a winning side. The fact of the matter is, the pipeline was already about three-quarters complete by the time it became a liberal cause celebre. Therefore, the issue isn’t the building of the pipeline, but rather the finishing of the pipeline.

But, why aren’t more environmentalists just as concerned with the pipeline not being completed as with its completion? They probably should be, if we’re being realistic here. Oil is already moving from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, it’s just not getting there via the pipeline. Instead of the pipeline, which I admit will probably leak and spill at some point, the oil is finishing its voyage to the Gulf coast via large trucks and trains, which are spilling as we speak.

We use too much oil, and we have to transition away from that. But in the meantime, oil will continue to flow, whether we like it or not. We’ve cut back on our purchases from the Middle East, finally, and we’re producing more oil than ever domestically. But it’s not enough. We need oil from Mexico and Canada, and the oil has to travel to a refinery to be usable. Neither of the choices for travel, whether pipeline or ground transport, are good ones, but unless you want the devastation of $15 per gallon gas, the oil has to travel somehow other than horse and buggy. So, which is better, environmentally? On the one hand, pipelines do break and spill oil. On the other hand, if you have ever driven around the country using an Interstate, you’ve seen leaky tankers, and cargo trains come very close to residential areas and business centers of many cities and towns, both large and small. Are we actually safer driving with the oil and having trains full of oil traveling through our neighborhoods than to have it travel via pipeline? There is no answer to that question, so don’t even try.

Yes, I said there is no answer. There is no better or worse option. Don’t agree? Consider the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Lac-Mégantic doesn’t have a pipeline. Their contact with oil comes from the trains that travel through their town on a regular basis. Well, used to, anyway.

Haven’t heard of Lac-Mégantic, up in Quebec, Canada? That’s not surprising, since the train derailment hasn’t been a huge story in the United States. It’s also been a bit more than a month since 72 rail cars full of crude oil barreled through the town, derailing and causing massive devastation to the town.The Lac-Mégantic disaster actually did more damage than the West Fertilizer explosion, to a town that is only slightly larger, with a population of 6,000. The explosion from the derailment killed 47 people, eviscerated the town’s downtown area, including dozens of structures and will also effectively kill the town’s tourist economy. The entire town had to be evacuated for a while, with many not being able to return for weeks after the explosion. The town’s cleanup will cost them at least $200 million, and the railroad was only insured for $25 million.

At least as importantly, the train spilled at least 80,000 gallons of oil in the countryside, including a waterside park on the large freshwater lake for which the town was named. Lac Mégantic spills out into the Chaudière River, which in turn drains into the St Lawrence River. To date, there is no estimate of the environmental devastation, but the area was so contaminated with benzene that investigators and firefighters had to work in fifteen-minute shifts to prevent excessive exposure. At least 26,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Chaudière, and travelled at least as far as the town of Saint-Georges, 50 miles to the northeast, which caused that town to ask residents to limit their water consumption, since they had to draw water from a lake that was unable to supply the town’s daily needs.

Ask the people of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec whether or not they think a pipeline might be a better alternative.

This isn’t about whether or not the Keystone XL pipeline is a good idea. But instead of fighting this battle, we need to spend more time fighting our oil dependence. Until we seriously reduce our use of oil, we’re going to be left with a series of bad choices. Again, stopping the Keystone pipeline is not the issue, really. It’s mostly built, and not having the pipeline will not stop the oil from getting to the refineries around the Gulf. And what will we tell people when our actions result in another Lac-Mégantic-style disaster somewhere within our country.

As progressives, we need to focus our energy on those things that have to change. Expending so much energy on Keystone could be a huge waste of time, and it may not make the environment better. Besides, our goal should be making Keystone obsolete by engaging everyone in the switch to alternative energy.

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One comment

  1. Overall, rail is safer than pipelines. What other transportation business leaves explosive/flammable cargo with engines running unstaffed overnight uphill from a population center? I know in the aviation business once a plane lands they jack in an external power source. Why can’t trains plug into the grid overnight and shut the engines down? On a dead end siding?

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