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Expert: No Keystone means greater risk of oil spills

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Michael Bastasch Energy Editor

The recent oil spill from an Exxon Mobil pipeline in Arkansas at first glance seemed to reinforce environmentalists’ argument that the Keystone XL pipeline would be a dangerous addition to the country’s vast pipeline system.

However, Charles Ebinger, director of the Brookings Institution’s energy security initiative, told Bloomberg that hauling that oil by rail may be a worse alternative.

Ebinger told Bloomberg in a phone interview that denying the Keystone pipeline would “undoubtedly” result in more oil spills by trains as leaking railcar equipment gives trains a higher accident rate.

“The evidence is so overwhelming that railroads are far less safe than pipelines, that it would be a serious mistake to use these recent spills to say that Keystone is unsafe,” Ebinger said.

The Brookings Institution is considered a center-left think tank.

According to the Association of American Railroads, trains are nearly three times as likely to have a spill than pipelines. However, the group says that pipeline spills are usually four times larger than rail line spills.

In the last decade, trains have hauled 11.2 billion gallons of crude oil and spilled only 95,256 gallons, the majority of which came from a 2008 accident in Oklahoma that spilled 81,103 gallons.

The State Department’s review of Keystone found that the pipeline won’t have a huge impact on climate change, as it won’t substantially impact the development of tar sands oil or the amount of oil refined in the Gulf Coast region. However, the review also concluded the pipeline will have little impact on U.S. energy needs. The State Department said these could be through the increased use of rail transportation of oil and other pipelines.

In the same week as the Exxon pipeline spill, two railroad spills occurred as well, reigniting the debate over which method of getting tar sands oil from Canada into the U.S. was safer.

“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 — the company aiming to build Keystone. “None of those methods of transportation are as safe as moving it by pipelines.”

As U.S. oil production booms, the lack of pipelines to carry all that production will mean trains will be increasingly used to pick up the slack. If Keystone is not approved trains will have to haul as much as 425,000 barrels per day by 2017. If the pipeline is approved, trains could still move as much as 300,000 barrels per day.

“To the extent that we don’t approve pipelines, rail is going to become an even more critical solution. And that isn’t the most economical solution, nor is it the safest,” said Darren Peers, managing director at NWQ Investment Management Co.

The Obama administration is expected to make a decision on the pipeline sometime in the summer.

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