Keystone XL backers hail government's warning on oil-by-rail

US and Canadian officials warn that carrying crude oil by train poses risk

The Alberta tar sands in Canada, from which the Keystone XL pipeline might carry crude oil through the U.S.
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/AP

A government warning about the dangers of increased use of trains to transport crude oil is giving a boost to supporters of the long-delayed Keystone XL pipeline.

U.S. and Canadian accident investigators urged their governments Thursday to impose new safety rules on so-called oil trains, warning that a "major loss of life" could result from an accident involving the increasing use of trains to transport large amounts of crude oil.

The announcement came in the wake of a string of high-profile accidents.

In July last year, a crude oil train crash in Quebec caused an explosion and fire that killed 47 people. Another train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in North Dakota last month. No one was killed, but the incident prompted evacuation orders for residents of a nearby town.

Pipeline supporters said the stern joint warning by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada highlights the need for Keystone XL, which would carry oil dredged from tar sands in western Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the years-long review of Keystone has forced oil companies to look for alternatives to transport oil from the booming Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana to refineries in the U.S. and Canada.

A planned branch that would connect Keystone to the Bakken region would carry as much as 100,000 barrels of oil a day.

"Clearly, because this project has been held up, that is creating more (oil) traffic by rail," Hoeven said Thursday. "Those companies are being forced to deliver their product by rail because they don't have the pipelines."

A pipeline opponent said Hoeven's argument is based on a false choice between moving oil by rail or pipeline.

"It's disingenuous for supporters of Keystone XL to suggest that if we build Keystone, we won't have safety risks posed by crude-by-rail, and if we don't build the pipeline we will" have those risks, said Anthony Swift, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who has studied the Canadian tar sands.

Pipeline spills, some of them happening in remote areas, have rattled environmentalists as well as the people living near them. When a pipeline rupture sent more than 20,000 barrels of crude spewing across a North Dakota wheat field last year, it took nearly two weeks for officials to alert the public.

On Friday all 45 Republican U.S. Senators urged President Barack Obama to end delays and approve the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The letter was timed ahead of the president's annual State of the Union speech on Tuesday, although it is unknown if Obama will make a reference to Keystone.

"Given the length of time your administration has studied the Keystone XL pipeline and the public's overwhelming support for it, you should not further delay a decision to issue a Presidential permit," the senators wrote to Obama in an effort led by Hoeven and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

Rail through cities

Shipment of oil by train is likely to continue, whether or not Keystone XL is approved, Swift and others said, as companies seek to capitalize on an oil boom that has pushed North Dakota to become the second largest oil-producing state after Texas.

Overall, both rail and pipelines have good safety records. Spills from rail cars occur more frequently than from pipelines but tend to be smaller. Pipelines can also be built to avoid population centers and fragile ecosystems, while crude-carrying trains frequently travel through large cities such as Detroit and Philadelphia.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday called for new steps to protect communities from accidents involving oil trains and other hazardous materials, including fees on companies that ship crude oil by rail and on industries that use oil.

The money would go into a fund to rebuild rail lines, Emanuel told a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. Chicago is a major freight-rail hub. Emanuel's proposal was endorsed by the mayors of Philadelphia; Milwaukee and Madison, Wis.; Kansas City, Kan.; and Peoria, Ill.

Rail industry officials bristled at the notion of a tax on their customers.

"Freight railroads each year invest roughly $25 billion of their own funds into the nationwide rail network so taxpayers don't have to, and the result is rail infrastructure that is the envy of the world," said Edward Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads.

Most of the crude currently being moved by rail is light crude from the Bakken region, not heavy tar-sands oil from Canada, said Swift of the NRDC.

Oil from tar sands is heavier and more expensive to move by rail, but energy companies in the Bakken region embrace rail since it is more flexible than pipelines. North Dakota produces nearly a million barrels of oil a day, a majority of it shipped by rail.

"Expansion of tar sands depends very much" on Keystone's approval, Swift said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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