The deadly explosion of a Canadian freight train could boost the case for the U.S. government’s approval of a controversial oil pipeline, which supporters say would reduce the risk of similar disasters in the future.
The disaster’s death toll is up to 13, and an additional 40 passengers are missing since the train, which was carrying 72 tanker cars of crude oil, derailed and subsequently exploded in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on Saturday.
Proponents of the Keystone XL Pipeline have noted that a rejection of the project by the Obama administration would likely mean additional crude oil transported by rail, and hence a heightened risk of future accidents.
"The train disaster in Quebec is a tragic example of how some means of transportation are more dangerous than others," James Taylor, senior fellow for environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in an email.
The administration has repeatedly delayed its decision to approve or reject the pipeline. President Barack Obama recently said he would not approve the project unless it was determined to be carbon neutral, suggesting to some that he planned to reject it.
Proponents of the project say that outcome would make oil transportation more risky.
"Oil pipelines, such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, transport oil much more safely than trains and ships," Taylor said.
Recent oil spills involving pipelines have been featured prominently in reporting on the dangers of that mode of transportation.
However, Charles Ebinger, director of the Brookings Institution’s Energy security initiative, said using rail as an alternative would "undoubtedly" lead to even more oil spills.
"The evidence is so overwhelming that railroads are far less safe than pipelines, that it would be a serious mistake to use these recent spills to say that Keystone is unsafe," Ebinger told Bloomberg News.
The rail industry points out that spill incidence is still very low, and that even minor accidents are rare, let alone disasters on the scale of Saturday’s.
Data complied by the American Action Forum (AAF) shows that, while spill incidence for rail is indeed small, rail transportation also accounts for a small percentage of total crude oil transported.
"Between 2005 and 2009, pipelines transported nearly 17 times more oil than rail. In the same period, railway travel reported more than twice as many incidents related to the transport of hazardous materials—718 as compared to 354 for pipelines—and 34 incidents per ton-mile traveled for every 1 incident via pipeline," explained Catrina Rorke, AAF’s director of energy policy, on the organization’s website.
As more crude is transported over rail lines, the number of spills may rise as well, Rorke suggested.
"It’s important that this oil is transported in the safest and most efficient way possible," she wrote.
Rail transportation company BNSF has seen its crude shipments skyrocket as North American oil production has increased. The company shipped 13 million barrels of crude over its rail lines in 2008; by 2012, that number was 90 million.
One of BNSF’s major investors is billionaire mogul Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. While Buffett says he supports the Keystone Pipeline, some have noted that a decision by the president to kill the project could benefit Buffett, one of his most high profile supporters.
Environmentalists acknowledge that rail transportation could be riskier, but insist that the answer is not more pipelines, but a total abandonment of oil altogether.
"There’s no safe way to move this oil around," Sierra Club spokesman Eddie Scher told the Washington Post on Tuesday. "What we need to do is to get the hell off oil."
Industry representatives say that that position betrays the radicalism of Keystone opponents.
"One outcome from the tragic rail accident in Canada is that far left activists finally admitted what they are really opposed to when it comes to Keystone XL: our use fossil fuels," one industry insider, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Washington Free Beacon.
"For these activists, Keystone has always been a symbol for stopping all traditional energy resources and fulfilling their green agenda," he added.
Until the United States can completely wean itself off of oil, an endpoint that some experts say is for all practical purposes unattainable, observers expect the Canadian train explosion to boost the case for greater pipeline capacity.
"No decision should be made on one event and the tragedy in Quebec should not preclude future rail shipments of oil, but it does emphasize that pipeline is the safest method of transportation for oil and Keystone XL would be one that’s state-of-the-art," Heritage Foundation energy policy expert Nick Loris said in an email.