A pair of reports released this week by federal agencies bolster arguments by supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline that the administration’s failure to approve the project would produce more and deadlier environmental disasters.
One of the reports finds that oil producers in North Dakota are increasingly opting to transport crude by rail as the pipeline remains in regulatory limbo. The other predicts that increased rail transportation will lead to more derailments and the deadly and environmentally catastrophic consequences that they entail.
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Together, the two reports present a compelling case for the environmental benefits of the pipeline. However, environmentalists have described the pipeline as a "line in the sand," and the Democratic Party is increasingly aligning itself with anti-Keystone voices—to the chagrin of other elements of its base.
The State Department’s report was actually an update to previous projections of the relative hazards of transporting oil via pipeline and rail. It initially found that the uptick in rail transit that would result from a rejection of the pipeline could cause 700 injuries and 92 deaths over 10 years.
Last week it increased those numbers substantially. Without Keystone, the State Department said, crude transportation could cause accidents resulting in 2,947 injuries and 434 deaths over the same period.
The relative safety of oil pipelines has been a selling point for Keystone supporters. "Crude oil, regardless of where it is produced, is safest when transported by pipelines," insists TransCanada, the company building Keystone.
A spokesman reiterated that position last week. The State Department’s report "reaffirms what we have been saying for years: the safest, most environmentally responsible and affordable way to move oil to the markets where they are needed is a pipeline," TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told the New York Times.
An environmentalist group responded that the State Department’s update merely underscores the inherent dangers in extracting and transporting crude oil by any means. However, the State Department has previously noted that Canadian "oil sands" crude, which Keystone would transport to the Gulf coast, will be extracted, transported, refined, and burned regardless of the administration’s decision on the pipeline.
Keystone is "unlikely to significantly impact the rate of extraction in the oil sands or the continued demand for heavy crude oil at refineries in the United States," the State Department’s environmental assessment of the project found.
The Canadian government has signaled that it will look to export oil sands crude elsewhere if the U.S. does not approve the pipeline. But American oil producers on pipeline’s planned northern route are also looking to transit alternatives as the project stalls.
According to a report from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) released this week, oil producers in the Bakken shale formation, from which Keystone would transport oil extracted by hydraulically fracturing shale, are increasingly transporting their products by rail.
Oil pipeline infrastructure is no longer expansive enough to carry the massive volumes of oil being extracted from the Bakken, EIA noted.
"The number of rail carloads of crude oil began rising in 2012, as production in the Bakken shale and other shale plays grew," the report found. "According to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, Bakken rail outflow capacity totaled 965,000 barrels per day (bbl/d) at the end of 2013, compared to 515,000 bbl/d of pipeline capacity."
Without adequate pipeline capacity, the report said, "producers have increasingly moved crude oil out of production areas by rail."
Recent environmental disasters involving trains carrying Bakken crude have highlighted the dangers of that trend. One freight train derailed in North Dakota in December, spilling 400,000 gallons of oil into the surrounding area.
Exacerbating the potential dangers of Bakken rail transportation are chemical qualities of the oil in that shale formation that make it more flammable than other types of crude.
While experts admit oil spills cannot be completely eliminated, they say that train derailments and other accidents associated with rail transport generally boost the case for approving Keystone.
"The train disaster in Quebec is a tragic example of how some means of transportation are more dangerous than others," said James Taylor, a senior fellow for environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, of a derailment in Canada last year that killed 47 people after tanks carrying oil exploded.
"Oil pipelines, such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, transport oil much more safely than trains and ships," Taylor said.