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Scientists, Dems See the Light on Dangers of Crude Transport by Rail, Power of Keystone XL as Safe Alternative

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Using oil spills and explosions in North Dakota, Quebec, and Alabama as examples, scientists are increasingly reaching consensus that the infrastructure being used to ship Bakken crude oil is outdated and will lead to future environmental disasters.  As we have discussed in the past, the Keystone XL pipeline would alleviate the pressure on our current infrastructure system to move this valuable resource.  

Two reports released in June, one from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and another from the state department, made this very argument.  Now, a new piece in left-leaning Salon injects new scientific data into the conversation which reveals how horrible the scope of potential outcomes could be if the status quo is upheld:

The economic and political pressure to move the oil far exceeds efforts to upgrade the nation’s rail infrastructure and impose new regulations on either the oil or rail industry. Kenton Onstad, a North Dakota legislator who lives just outside New Town, where the train that exploded in Lac-Mégantic originated, says the nation’s oil-by-rail infrastructure needs to be overhauled and that it should have started years ago. According to Onstad, public officials have known since 2009 that the amount of production from the Bakken would be close to what it is today, and yet they did little to prepare for the oil boom. “I think it was economics and profits versus safety,” he says.

“We’ve got all kinds of failings on all sides, inadequacies that are coming to light because trains are blowing up all over the place,” says Fred Millar, a railway safety consultant.

In the absence of a pipeline, oil is being dangerously shipped through major metropolitan areas.  Scientist Scott Smith, whose work is central to the Salon article, has conducted studies on many of the accidents involving Bakken crude.  He argues that the gentic makeup of this particular oil is much of the reason the accidents have been so bad:

“Conventional crude on the surface never ever explodes, let alone vaporizes people like Hiroshima,” Smith says. (Five of the 47 people killed in Lac-Mégantic were never found.)

Safety is thus one of the strongest arguments in favor of the Keystone’s construction. Inaction has already jeopardized communities along these rails routes, which cover quite a bit of ground according to article author Adam Federman:

A map of the nation’s freight rail network looks like a diagram of the circulatory system, its 140,000 rail miles the blood vessels and capillaries connecting major cities to ports and refineries. At its heart is Chicago, which has more lines of track extending out than any other city. More than 500 freight trains and 800 passenger trains pass through the city every day. From there everything flows. Through Kansas and Oklahoma City to the Gulf Coast, where Kinder Morgan has plans to complete a 210,000-barrel-per-day rail terminal in Houston. Through Cleveland and Buffalo to ports on the Hudson and refineries in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and Delaware. North through Montreal to the Irving Oil Refinery in New Brunswick, where the train that leveled Lac-Mégantic was destined. Every day oil trains carrying up to 85,000 barrels of oil arrive in Albany, a city of about 100,000 people. A refinery in Philadelphia receives one-fifth of all oil produced in the Bakken and has plans to expand production and rail capacity. In January, an oil train derailed while crossing a bridge over the Schuylkill River, though no oil spilled. Other trains carrying Bakken crude move west from North Dakota to Washington, Oregon, and California.

New polling from Pew Research Center shows that support for Keystone XL is nearly universal.  Even Democrats who wish to see an expansion of clean energy technologies understand the value of the pipeline. This constituency is perhaps most in tune with an often-discussed ‘all hands on deck’ approach to energy. While building up solar, wind and other globe-changing alternatives, it is vital to bolster tried and true resources such as oil. In the case of Bakken crude, the responsibility of the government is to keep people safe. Achieving that requires one thing: Keystone XL.


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