Oil transport: Pipelines are better than rail

  • Updated: July 9, 2013 - 7:30 PM
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In a Monday, July 8, 2013 photo provided by Surete du Quebec via The Canadian Press, the downtown core lies in ruins in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in a Surete du Quebec. Thirteen people are confirmed dead and forty more are listed as missing after a train derailed ignited tanker cars carrying crude oil.

Photo: , Associated Press - Ap

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OIL TRAIN DISASTER

Pipelines are a better option than rail

A runaway train bearing crude oil derailed early Saturday, igniting a fireball that killed at least 13 people in a small Quebec town near the Maine border. Much of the town was incinerated.

The train had stopped for a routine crew change and inspection, but then started moving on its own, traveling nearly seven miles before it careened off the tracks. The crash remains under investigation, but one truth is already clear: There are real and oft-ignored dangers involved in the transfer of crude oil by rail.

In the midst of a boom in North American oil production, the amount of crude shipped by rail has skyrocketed. The Wall Street Journal reported that 9,500 carloads were shipped by rail in 2008; by 2012, that had soared to 234,000 carloads. On balance, the exploitation of new oil fields, like the growth in natural-gas production, has been a boon to the U.S. economy and foreign policy. But infrastructure has not kept pace. Particularly as political opposition has slowed pipeline construction, oil transport has had to rely on a network of railways, some of which are outdated and in need of repair.

Environmentalists are pressing President Obama to deny TransCanada Corp.’s application to build the Keystone XL pipeline that would move oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. They have focused heavily on the supposed danger of oil pipelines.

The tragedy in Quebec is a reminder that no transportation method is without risk. Pipelines, properly built and maintained, offer the most secure, as well as most efficient, method. A gradual reduction of greenhouse gases is the right goal; as we’ve argued, the way to achieve it is through a carbon tax or, failing congressional action, the kind of regulations Obama recently proposed to wean power plants off coal. The activists’ focus on Keystone represents a misordering of priorities.

Whatever happens, the accident in Lac-Megantic should focus attention on the safety of the continent’s rails.

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