Can environmentalists think? More importantly, are they mass murderers?

Brad Stephens wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal — Can Environmentalists Think? — all but blaming Saturday’s tragedy in Quebec on the intransigence of the environmental movement. After rehearsing all the reasons he believes building a pipeline is preferable to rail transport (and dipping into some sweet climate denialism while he was at it), Stephens leaves off with this  parting shot:

The first application for a Keystone XL pipeline permit was filed with the U.S. State Department in 2008. Since then, the amount of oil being shipped on rails has risen 24-fold. Environmentalists enraged by this column should look at the photo of Lac-Mégantic that goes with it, and think it over.

But where Stephens explicitly intended for his column to “enrage” readers like me, I’m here to explain why the whole incident has actually given this environmentalist some hope. On one level, he’s right. Had Keystone been built, there probably wouldn’t have been a train full of oil parked right outside a rural town of 5,000. But last time I checked, environmentalists didn’t extract any oil, load it on a train, and send it east. Central to Stephens’ argument is the proposition that Alberta’s tar sands will, one way or another, be mined — or as he puts it, “the pig will be roasted.”

But that’s quite the bold assurance for an industry that has resorted to appealing directly to the American public by paying for airtime. The title “Can Environmentalists Think?” reeks of desperation, the dying gasp of a project that knows its final hope rests on the decision of one President Barack Hussein Obama. And despite what Stephens would have you believe about the ramifications of Saturday’s tragedy, things for him are starting to look grim.

Before I begin to explain where I’m coming from, a few words about the tragedy: A train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on Saturday, flattening the town’s center. So far, 13 bodies have been recovered from the wreckage, and as many as fifty people remain missing. There’s almost no chance any of them are still alive, and authorities have publicly questioned whether it will be possible to identify their remains by matching DNA samples — or if the bodies have been so thoroughly incinerated that investigators won’t be able to extract DNA. It’s truly a horrific story, and I wish all the families coping with the unspeakable tragedy all my best.

So with that acknowledgement of the human dimensions of this tragedy, I’d like to turn to that aspect of the story the media can’t manage to leave alone: what does this Canadian incident mean for American politics, and more specifically, Keystone XL?

Keystone XL, if you haven’t been paying attention, is a proposed pipeline that would carry oil mined from Canada’s Alberta tar sands through the American Mid West (Kanye’s next baby name) to ports on the American Gulf Coast for export to China. The controversy has broken down along the usual fault lines, with the energy industry insisting the project will create American jobs, and environmentalists arguing that developing the tar sands means “game over” for the climate — and besides, that it won’t create more than a few thousand temporary construction jobs. Whoop-de-do.

The debate garnered headlines a few weeks ago, when — during a speech outlining his administration’s efforts to combat climate change — Barack Obama unexpectedly threw this wrench into the gears:

“Our national interest will be served only if this project doesn’t significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project can go forward.”

His words were just cryptic enough that both sides interpreted them as a positive sign, but the statement does make one thing clear: evaluating the alternatives will be crucial to the decision over Keystone’s future. It’s impossible to determine whether Keystone XL will increase emissions if you don’t consider what would happen if the project simply never moved forward. In that sense, Obama’s speech spoke volumes.

On the question of alternatives, it is sometimes thought that the pro-pipeline people have the better argument: Don’t build the pipeline through the midwest? No big deal. We’ll just build one west — through British Columbia. And that’s precisely what was threatened after the Obama administration initially rejected the Keystone permit back in January, 2012 (with the support of Nebraskans wary of despoiling the crucial, pristine, and rapidly disappearing Ogallala aquifer):

Canada this month began hearings on a proposed pipeline by Enbridge Inc. to move crude from Alberta’s oil sands to British Columbia’s coast, where it could be shipped to Asian markets.

But a funny thing happened to those plans to go west: turns out, Canadians — particularly, those of the First Nation variety — aren’t thrilled by the prospect of a proposed pipeline either. And in the year and a half since the west-through-BC alternative was first seriously put forward, it’s become clear that the plan comes with some significant challenges:

Canada’s First Nations communities also play a role in the decision. Some 70 of them are along the pipeline’s proposed route — and all of them oppose the pipeline.

And that’s even more significant than the province’s rejection, because, while the federal government can overrule the [British Columbia], it doesn’t have the authority to overrules [sic] the First Nations.

“And that’s really where a lot of financial analysts are basically acknowledging that because there are 70 First Nation communities with legal constitutional rights to stop the project, they’re basically saying this project is not likely to move ahead at all,” Droitsch said.

Faced with the prospect of an inability to build a new pipeline west of Albert, the next threatened alternative is oil-by-rail. From a 2009 editorial in Canada’s National Post:

The energy and geopolitical ramifications of Canadian National Railway’s “Pipeline on Rails” initiative is a game-changer for Canada. As I revealed in Thursday’s Financial Post, the railway has developed a transformative strategy to move oil sands production more quickly and cheaply to markets in North America or Asia.

This project, in its early stages, will eliminate three barriers to the development of Canada’s vast oil sands: the cost, delays and financial risks involved in building multi-billion-dollar pipelines; the politics of obstruction south of the border from environmentalists and the danger of selling oil to monopoly buyers in the United States which has, in the past, resulted in contracts being ripped up when times were tough.

And while that project may have been in its infancy back in 2009, trains picked up some serious steam over the past year or so. Back in March, the Wall Street Journal noted:

Oil nearly always travels below ground—by pipeline. Unlike pipelines, which travel between two fixed points, trains can transport the oil in many more directions. They also let producers go where the demand is—taking advantage of spreads of as much as $25 a barrel in markets pipelines can’t reach.

Until recently, “crude by rail” was just an experiment. But by November, big oil players had carved out a plan here, dooming a new pipeline project in favor of a dozen rail-loading sheds. By year’s end, more oil was moving out of North Dakota by rail than by pipeline.

Like the jeopardized pipeline through BC, a lot of this oil would travel west. A report came out on June 24 illustrating the extent to which plans to move oil west by locomotive have been set in motion:

A Seattle environmental research group issued a report Monday showing that nearly a dozen plans have emerged to haul crude oil by rail to refineries and port terminals in the Pacific Northwest.

“Moving large quantities of oil by rail would be a major change for the Northwest’s energy economy, but so far the proposals have largely escaped notice,” according to Sightline Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on sustainability issues.

In the report, The Northwest’s Pipeline on Rails, by Eric de Place, the group’s policy director, the nonprofit says 11 refineries and port terminals are planning, building or already operating oil-by-rail shipments in Washington and Oregon. That includes a proposal by Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build a crude-oil transfer terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

But that oil wouldn’t have to travel west. Unconstrained by dependence on a single pipeline, it could punch a ticket to ride wherever the rail takes it — including east, through Quebec. Though the oil that flattened Lac-Megantic originated in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation, not Alberta, make no mistake: under the current backup plan, should Obama reject Keystone, tar sands oil would take to the rails faster than you can incinerate one square kilometer in the center of town.

And, as Saturday’s tragedy starkly demonstrated — in case you weren’t sure — that’s a bad thing. It underscored pre-existing studies showing that “rail is 3400% more dangerous when it comes to injuries and deaths per mile ton shipped.” Moreover, rail is much less energy-efficient and cost-effective than moving fossil fuel by pipeline — and that’s according to the State Department’s Environmental Impact Statement on Keystone: “Pipeline cost is approx. $7/bbl. while actual rail cost is $31/bbl.  Third, rail causes much more harm to the environment than pipelines. It was estimated in the EIS, rail would cause 8% more greenhouse gas per year than the XL pipeline.” Finally, it’s unclear whether existing rail lines could come even close to handling the upsurge in tar sands output contemplated in Canadian PM Stephen Harper’s (no relation to Brad Stephens) wettest of wet dreams.

But if Option 1 (Keystone) is off the table, that doesn’t mean we have to move on to Option 2 (oil-by-rail). Inversely, just because oil-by-rail is not a great alternative does not mean Obama ought to approve Keystone. That said, that’s certainly a tempting logical leap — and precisely how the Canadians hope Obama will frame the problem:

Harper has called railroad transit “far more environmentally challenging” while trying to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

The Toronto Globe and Mail toed the country line, writing:

After Saturday’s tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que., it is time to speed up the approval of new pipeline construction in North America. Pipelines are the safest way of transporting oil and natural gas, and we need more of them, without delay.

And the Washington Post weighed in, noting that “proponents of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline may now be bolstered by arguing that pipelines are safer and more fuel-efficient than trains.”

But I don’t think the implications are so clearcut. Yes, transport by rail is much more dangerous. No, environmentalists don’t want to see dozens of people killed in a small Quebec town. But guess who else isn’t thrilled at the prospect of an ever-longer oil train emanating from Northern Alberta? The residents of Quebec. And Ontario. And Manitoba. And Saskatchewan. And any other Province that promises to inconveniently “get in the way”. Even if these track-through regions can’t stop the shipments altogether, they can put up obstacles and make rail transportation even more expensive (and less economically feasible).

Even before Saturday’s tragedy, there was a movement afoot to stem the tide. An article published that day before the tragedy outlined some of the growing grassroots opposition to plans for moving oil east:

Last Saturday, the small town of Otisfield, Maine, became the latest of seven towns to pass a resolution declaring opposition to a proposal by ExxonMobil to begin the dispersal of Alberta tar sands crude through the Portland-Montreal Pipeline. Originally a supplier of conventional crude oil to Canada for refining, the 62-year-old pipeline would be reversed, carrying tar sands from Montreal to Portland, Maine, where it would be exported overseas. Many of the concerns raised by Maine residents have to do with the safety of local lakes and rivers, namely Pleasant Lake and the Crooked River.

A similar backlash is escalating in Ontario, Canada, as residents and local activists seek to halt the reversal of Enbridge’s Line 9 —a section of a 5,000-mile pipeline network that will stretch from Alberta to Montreal–by establishing a massive blockade at Enbridge’s North Westover Pump Station in Beverly Swamp, a network of wetlands and streams that feeds into Lake Erie. Enbridge maintains, however, that there are no “plans, proposals or infrastructure for pipelines moving product further East than Montreal,” Lisa Song of InsideClimate News reported.

And that’s just local opposition to a relatively-safe pipeline. Imagine what will happen when other towns along the rail ties realize they could be in for the same fate as Lac-Megantic? Sure, Maine says that it has no plans to stem the flow:

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, called the Quebec accident “tragic,” but said the state had no plans to review movements of crude oil through Maine.

“It’s on the same parallel as a tractor-trailer accident. It’s private commerce and we don’t get involved,” Talbot said.

“There’s no appetite to curb or otherwise alter the shipments of crude in Maine,” he said.

But already, protestors in Maine have turned out to protest oil shipments. Maybe I’m just desperately scratching for some silver lining, but if what happened in Lac-Megantic draws awareness and galvanizes opposition to oil-by-rail, we just might look back at Saturday’s incident as having cut off yet another avenue for tar sands escape.

You see, Barack Obama promised to consider the pipeline in the context of its alternatives, but if it becomes apparent there aren’t any — no pipeline through BC, and no appetite for another Lac-Megantic — it will be hard to continue arguing, as the State Department did back in March, that “Denying Keystone XL Would Not Slow Oil Sands Development“. Au contraire, it could strangle it. Anything but dealing the tar sands project a death blow would, by definition, “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

But it’s too late. The cat’s out of the bag. The noose is tightening. The train has left the station. The debate has already started. And Canada’s options are disappearing. If the oil can’t escape south, west, or east, it will have no choice but to stay in the ground. Unless, of course, Enbridge decides to try to move it north. The ironic thing — if you have a sick, twisted sense of irony — is that the more tar sands Alberta extracts, the more feasible that option becomes:

arctic-sea-ice-1885-2085Expect to hear more about the Northwest Passage in the years ahead.

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