Massive Crude-by-Rail Accident May Fuel Keystone XL Debate

A massive fire on Saturday that destroyed a large portion of a Canadian town and may have killed as many as forty people has also ignited debate about the wisdom of shipping crude oil by rail rather than pipeline. 

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that U.S. rail shipments of crude oil have increased twenty-fold since 2008, when a boom in North American production began, and in the absence of available pipeline infrastructure.

On Monday, a coalition of groups supporting the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude from Canada's oil sands to the United States, published a full-page advertisement on the back page of the Journal. 

The advertisement draws attention to the different pollution standards in the U.S. and China--two alternate destinations for the oil to be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline. "We can refine Canada's oil safely OR we can let China do it their way," it reads, above an image of a smog-filled Shanghai. 

Canada has made clear that it will provide the oil to China if the Keystone XL pipeline is not built. 

The timing of the ad appears to be unrelated to the accident in Canada, but rather to the overall debate. In June, President Barack Obama said he would back the Keystone XL pipeline only if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution," classifying carbon dioxide as a pollutant like "mercury and sulfur and arsenic."

Nevertheless, the disaster--one among a spate of recent crude-by-rail accidents--will likely fuel a debate that has already been building. Environmentalists, the Journal notes, have already tried to block rail shipments of crude. Their preference is not for a crude pipeline but for an alternative to oil development altogether.

The shipment that ignited the massive fire in Lac Megantic, Quebec would not have traveled via the Keystone XL pipeline: it was a shipment of crude from North Dakota en route to a refinery in Canada. The Journal notes that some refineries have come to prefer the flexibility of rail shipments to oil arriving via pipeline. That could provide environmentalists with new arguments, even as safety concerns bolster the case for the pipeline.


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