Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Tina Casey headshot

The Issue is Trust, Not Pipelines vs. Railways

Dozens of people are still missing in the aftermath of last weekend's oil tank rail car disaster in Canada, but advocates of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline have already jumped on the tragic loss of life to advance their case for pipeline vs railway transportation.

In terms of corporate social responsibility and crisis response, we're thinking that kind of utilitarian reaction to a horrible tragedy will do more harm than good to the oil industry overall, though.

There are two kinds of pitfalls here. First, in drawing more attention to fuel transportation statistics, Keystone advocates are also drawing more attention to the the fact that the global fossil fuel market is intensifying. That is putting increasing pressure on transportation routes, which necessarily results in at least some degree of increased risk to communities along those routes.

Second, Keystone advocates are in danger of raising more doubts about pipeline safety than they alleviate. Regardless of what picture the pipeline vs. railway statistics paint, pipelines are still part of an ongoing "crumbling infrastructure" conversation that will only intensify as the nation's network of pipelines gets older.

With that in mind, let's see exactly what points the Keystone advocates are trying to make...

Pipelines vs. railways

The American Enterprise Institute cut straight to the mustard in the pipelines vs. railways debate, with a think piece on July 10 by Mark J. Perry aptly titled, "Rail tragedy in Canada underscores the reality that pipelines like Keystone XL are the safest way to transport oil."

The numbers-heavy piece illustrates our point about pitfalls right out of the box with a one-two punch. Here's the first paragraph:

Railways suffer spills 2.7 times more often than pipelines. The State Department said trains spill 33 times more oil than pipelines. 'The evidence is so overwhelming that railroads are far less safe than pipelines,' says Charles Ebinger, director of the Brookings Institution’s energy security initiative.
And here's the second paragraph:
'One of the unintended consequences of delaying Keystone XL is that more oil has been getting to markets in Canada and the United States using rail, truck and water-borne tankers,' said Shawn Howard, a spokesman for TransCanada. 'None of those methods of transportation are as safe as moving it by pipelines.'
Putting aside the use of transparently biased sources such as Brookings and TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone pipeline, there is nothing wrong with these two paragraphs in the abstract. The argument reduces the issue to something quite simple, which is that more oil is coming to market, and naturally you want it to get there by the safest means possible.

However, Perry doesn't stop there. He goes on to emphasize something that is beginning to raise red flags in communities along existing and planned fossil fuel transportation routes, stating that "the oil is coming out regardless, and it’s going to be shipped by either pipeline, rail or barges."

Perry stuffs the piece with charts and statistics, but the end result is hardly reassuring. The numbers serve to remind the public that even pipelines bear some level of risk (a couple of recent examples are the Kalamazoo and Mayflower spills), and the logical conclusion is that those will increase as the network of pipelines grows.

Trust and the oil industry

As for the big picture of an intensification in the global fuel market, Scientific American has a piece by David Biello, associate editor for environment and energy, that sums up why the whole pipelines vs. railways debate is a moot point:
Ultimately, the problem is the unflagging demand for oil, which ceaselessly adds to the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere and changing the global climate and necessitates moving large quantities of crude around North America, opening up the potential for fatal accidents and spills. Until the U.S. and the world significantly cut oil use, petroleum will continue to move by train, truck, pipeline and supertanker, each with its own risks.
In that context, consider the following argument by Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the University of Alberta's School of Business.

In a piece titled "Lac-Mégantic isn’t good for pipelines—it’s bad for oil, period," Leach notes that the disastrous 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was also used by tar sands advocates to promote the idea that oilsands are less risky than offshore drilling, but that line of argument appears to have had limited, if any, effectiveness.

As Leach sees it, by bringing up the BP spill, tar sands advocates focused more attention on the broader issues surrounding the disaster. These are:

...1) increased public consciousness of the dangers inherent in transporting oil and oil products and more aversion to having these products moved nearby; 2) increased calls for alternatives to oil rather than alternative means of transporting oil; and 3) decreased trust in regulators’ and firms’ abilities to sufficiently mitigate risks from transporting oil.
As far as Leach is concerned, these same three factors will go to work in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, and the more Keystone advocates bring up that tragedy, the more attention they will attract to the increasing public health and safety risks of fossil fuel dependency, and the more they will speed the erosion of trust in the industry.

We agree -- do you? Feel free to leave a comment in the thread.

[Image (cropped): Tar sands pipeline poster by Elvert Barnes]

Follow me on Twitter and Google+.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

Read more stories by Tina Casey

More stories from Leadership & Transparency