Trains Are No Substitute For Keystone

Nathan Leamer Policy Analyst, R Street Institute
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In what was ultimately a surprise to no one, President Barack Obama yesterday vetoed the bill to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. This sets the stage for yet another episode in a years-long political drama, as congressional Republicans scramble to find the votes necessary to override the veto.

The back and forth will continue with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) calling for a veto override vote within a week. When it approved the bill Jan. 29, the Senate vote was 62-36, short of the two-thirds needed for override. The House’s 266-153 vote likewise falls short of the mark.

Obama also will have an additional opportunity to weigh in on the issue, with a final determination following a review conducted by the State Department, which could still decide the $8 billion pipeline is in the national interest.

Many environmental groups and high-profile celebrities praised the president’s veto, claiming the pipeline would “pose an incredible risk to the health and safety of our families and a livable planet.”

While environmental concerns about the Keystone Pipeline’s construction may be genuine, they ignore the reality that oil production and transport will continue with or without this particular project. With the pipeline construction stalled, vast amounts of crude oil have been transported via trains. This is a significantly more dangerous and environmentally harmful method of transportation than a pipeline.

The real danger of crude-oil transport was experienced last week in West Virginia, as a CSX-owned freight train derailed and burst into flames. A state of emergency was declared, with local communities evacuated and an area water treatment facility shut down for fear of contamination.

This type of emergency has become all too common, as advances in drilling technology in North Dakota and Canada dramatically increase oil production. Completion of the Keystone Pipeline would streamline the process of shipping oil to refineries, reducing the amount of crude of oil transported via rail.

Currently, almost 10 percent of U.S. crude oil is transported by rail, which ships roughly 1.5 million barrels daily and more than 15,000 carloads weekly. The Keystone pipeline, which would ship 830,000 barrels a day from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico, wouldn’t eliminate the need for train transport, but it certainly would make a dent.

For those concerned about climate change, shutting down pipelines ultimately does nothing to advance the goal of controlling carbon emissions. The State Department itself concluded in its environmental review that approving the pipeline would have no significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions or future development of tar-sands resources.

In the long run, the best and most appropriate way to respond to the environmental concern is with a revenue-neutral price on carbon, directing the revenues to offset other taxes that even more destructive to human growth and opportunity. In the meantime, projects like the Keystone XL pipeline offer a much safer and more efficient method than the status quo.

It is about time the president ends the gridlock and grandstanding and approves this much-needed project.