“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.