From: Addison Del Mastro, Worldwatch Institute, More from this Affiliate
Published September 5, 2013 08:46 AM

Train or Pipeline, the Answer is the Same

The catastrophic crash of an oil-carrying train in the province of Quebec last month, which devastated the town of Lac-Mégantic and killed dozens, has brought the Keystone XL pipeline into the headlines again.


For many environmentalists, the train crash is just one more reminder of the risks of fossil fuel production – that the train was carrying tar sands oil was, as it were, the icing on the cake. Conversely, for many supporters of the pipeline, the train crash proves that we need Keystone.

But first a word on tar sands and the other unconventional oil sources now being extracted such as shale oil. Unlike conventional oil wells, shale and tar sands do not contain liquid oil. Oil must be extracted from them in a process that is quite similar to mining. The development of Canadian tar sands requires vast deforestation in order to dig up and process the sands, and shale oil extraction requires that massive amounts of rocks be mined and processed.

Extracting this oil requires incredible amounts of energy as well: while conventional oil production can produce 25 units of energy for every unit invested (25:1), tar sands perform as poorly as 2.9:1 and no better than 5:1. And this does not even include the entire lifecycle of tar sands: only the extraction and refinement.

Now take this extremely labor and energy intensive oil, ship it on a high-risk oil train, and you get the Quebec disaster. To some, that's exactly why we need the Keystone pipeline. In a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Can environmentalists think?", Bret Stephens writes, "When it comes to the question of how best to transport oil, environmentalists tend to act like rabbis being asked for advice on how best to roast a pig: The thing should not be done in the first place. So opposition to Keystone XL becomes an assertion of virtue, indifferent to such lesser considerations as efficiency (or succulence). But the pig will be roasted. The oil will be pumped. What happens then?"

In other words, because pipelines are safer than trains, the only valid position on Keystone XL is to support it.

But there's a compelling point that Stephens entirely ignores. Chapter 14 in State of the World, "Keep Them in the Ground," suggests that even if the problem of spills and accidents, and even air and water pollution could be solved, we should still keep most fossil fuels in the ground. To continue using them perpetuates the fossil fuel-based economy and accelerates climate change. And in the case of tar sands oil, production also requires vast deforestation – which itself contributes to carbon emissions.

Continue reading at ENN affiliate, Worldwatch Institute.

Pipeline image via Shutterstock.

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