Why rail matters to Keystone XL - Macleans.ca

Why rail matters to Keystone XL

Luiza Ch. Savage on the Lac-Mégantic disaster and the U.S. pipeline debate


Mathieu Belanger/Reuters

The massive train disaster in Lac-Mégantic finally made the front page of the Washington Post this morning — and was linked to the U.S.  debate over pipelines:

“The explosion near the border of Maine also reverberated in the rest of Canada and the United States, where people are hotly debating what mode of transportation is safest and most economical for carrying the steadily growing output of crude oil from North Dakota and northern Alberta’s oil sands. And it reignited calls for tougher standards for ethanol and crude oil tank cars.

U.S. railroads are already carrying more than 1 million barrels of crude oil a day, bolstered by new shale-oil boom regions such as North Dakota and Texas. Proponents of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline may now be bolstered by arguing that pipelines are safer and more fuel-efficient than trains.”

But the role of rail in transporting crude oil matters to Keystone XL in a more direct way than the general debate over the safety or cost of rail versus pipelines suggests.

As I outline in detail in this article in Maclean’s, the viability of rail as option for moving diluted bitumen from Alberta has become an important question in the State Department’s ongoing environmental review process. That is because the availability of train transportation was partially behind State’s tentative conclusion that construction of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would *not* increase production in the oil sands — and therefore would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions.

When President Barack Obama delivered his recent climate change speech in which he declared that impact on greenhouse gas emissions will be an “absolutely critical” criteria for approving the pipeline, this analysis became even more important. After the State Department issued its March draft environmental impact statement, another federal agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, responded in April with a letter declaring that the State Department’s analysis of the rail option was inadequate. EPA asked State to take a closer look at whether rail is truly a viable alternative to a pipeline. State is now in the process of fine-tuning its environmental impact assessment, which presumably includes taking into account EPA’s comments.

The bottom line is, if State follow’s EPA’s direction to take a closer look at rail and concludes that rail is not a feasible alternative to move an equivalent amount of oil, then that becomes a path to reversing its overall conclusion that the proposed pipeline will not significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Under Obama’s stated climate criteria, this could be fatal to the project.


Why rail matters to Keystone XL

  1. I think that all that can be concluded at this time, is that Canadian oil producers will have second thoughts about shipping oil/bitumen by rail. This should at least last until the Stampede ends, 6 days from now.

    When the last “half mile of hell” chuckwagon race is completed.

  2. If Canada and Alberta had been better behaved on climate policy (rather than being a pariah), Keystone XL would be permitted and built by now and the rail issue would be moot.

    • Under Obama, the United States has been exporting record amounts of thermal coal to Asia and restarted exports to Europe, exports that made the oil sands emissions look puny.

      Hypocrisy abounds on the issue of climate change.

  3. So it’s a choice between railroads run by incompetent people and pipelines run by incompetent people?

  4. In the meantime, look into thermoplastics recycling econmies like EU is, and R+D which thermoplastic products and blends are recyclable with as few high-footprint additives as possible. And a Bow and Elbow that dry up will be way worse for AB than a flooding river system, ad nauseam.

  5. Under NAFTA, I don’t think the United States can block the transport of petroleum liquids by rail, primarily because petroleum liquids are widely transported by rail inside the United States. The FTA and NAFTA essentially make North America a single market in petroleum products. i.e. There is a special side agreement between Canada and the US relating to petroleum in the FTA and NAFTA.

    How would a NAFTA panel be able to say transport of oil from Canada is unsafe, when over a million barrels of oil in the US is transported daily by rail.

    • Wrong. FTA/NAFTA only applies to apportioning when a shortage. Not relevant.

      • Wrong. He’s talking about the legality of blocking an import from a NAFTA partner. It has nothing to do with “apportioning” during a shortage. You’re talking about one small (and largely irrelevant) clause in NAFTA as though it were the entire agreement. The entire agreement covers pretty much everything and anything crossing the borders between the three signatories. And as Canada found out from the Methanex debacle of a dozen or so years ago, you can’t block imports on the basis of “safety” or “environmental concerns” if that same product or practice is still allowed on your own side of the border. If the US continues to allow rail transport of oil within their own country, they cannot block oil imports by rail from Canada. However, there is always the chance that the US could just ignore a NAFTA ruling, as they’ve done repeatedly with softwood lumber.

        • Yep. You’re both right. I misread.

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