Energy

More Oil Is Moving By Rail Thanks To Anti-Pipeline Protesters

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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As environmentalists continue to block pipeline construction projects, energy companies are increasingly turning to railroads to move their product to market.

The amount of Canadian oil traveling to the U.S. by rail is increasing dramatically. Before 2012, there were minimal amounts being moved by rail out of the country. Fast forward to June of this year, Canada’s energy regulator revealed that a record-breaking average of 200,000 barrels per day was exported by rail. This number is only expected to grow, with the International Energy Agency estimating the annual average will climb to 390,000 barrels per day by 2019.

The surge in oil by rail is a consequence of the backlog in pipeline projects. Environmental protesters — either through the court system or by illegal activism — have worked across the U.S. and Canada to scuttle pipeline construction projects.

One major battle in Canada has been over the Trans Mountain Pipeline, a crude oil pipeline from Alberta to British Columbia. Environmental protesters have vehemently worked to stop an expansion of the line — holding rallies, building makeshift homes near construction sites, and turning to the courts.

However, even when opposition groups successfully stop a pipeline from being built, the uptick in railroad transportation activity demonstrates that the market always finds an alternative.

“It’s a storm that’s been brewing for a while,” Kent Fellows, an economist with the University of Calgary, stated to the Washington Post. “The risks of spills are higher [by rail], but the fact that this stuff needs to get to market because people are buying it means it’ll search out the lowest-cost pathway.”

Fellows’ comments bring to light an ironic fact: Pipelines are much safer platform for oil transportation than railroads. Accidents happen by truck and rail more frequently than they do by pipeline. A study by the Fraser Institute, for example, found that oil delivery via pipelines are 4.5 times more safe than by rail. Other studies have determined that spills by rail happen 10 to 20 times more frequently than they do by pipeline. (RELATED: Trump Administration Rolls Back Obama-Era Train Regulation)

Environmentalists who successfully block completion of a pipeline project are, by many measurements, putting the public at greater risk of an oil spill.

Former President Barack Obama, in move that pleasured environmentalist groups, notably blocked the Dakota Access and Keystone Pipelines. However, these decisions were promptly reversed with the arrival of President Donald Trump.

Despite their setbacks at the hands of the Trump administration, environmental groups continue strongly oppose any new pipelines. Sierra Club and other organizations successfully forced the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia to stop construction in August after a federal appeals court threw out several key permits. One activist tied herself to the top of a crane in early October in a wildly dangerous attempt to stop work on the Bayou Bridge Pipeline taking place in Louisiana.

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