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Pipelines safer than rail for shipping oil

Now that the U.S. election and inauguration are out of the way, it’s time for President Barack Obama to focus like a laser on the first priority: the economy.

Approving the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf coast should rise near the top of his to-do list.

Political impediments have been removed. The governor of Nebraska has given the pipeline a green light to cross his state, after the Canadian sponsor changed the route to avoid crossing a sensitive water aquifer.

The pipeline company, TransCanada Corp., already has a line traversing that safer route.

Buried pipelines are by far the safest way to move vast quantities of chemicals that lubricate every aspect of our industrialized economy.

Critics say crude oil, mined from Alberta’s oilsands is too dirty and dangerous to the environment and should not be permitted.

Part of that is true. It is dirty oil, but it’s less ecologically dangerous than burning coal.

It’s also not all that different from Venezuelan oil, which Americans have been importing for generations, or oil from notoriously nasty California reservoirs.

Second, while the history of Alberta’s oilsands has been anything but pretty, the industry is cleaning up its act.

When Obama moves to do the right thing, Canadian legislators should follow his lead.

Reflexive critics of heavy Alberta oil are fond of showing old photos of scarred landscapes, where surface deposits were excavated and extracted.

Most shallow, cheap deposits have now been tapped out.

Modern techniques for extracting crude from deeper deposits are far less environmentally degrading.

They have a smaller surface footprint. Sets of two parallel pipes are sunk underground into the reservoir.

One drives steam into the deposit. The second pipe collects bitumen, which is liquefied by the steam.

Both are extracted, with water cleaned and recycled continuously.

Each cycle recovers about 95 per cent of the water that’s injected underground.

Every year, knowledge gained from experience improves the process.

This method makes massive landscape scarring a relic.

Once bitumen is processed, upgraded and diluted for shipment, pipelines are the best way to move it.

They are efficient, cheaper and far safer than other options.

It’s a measure of how distorted public consciousness has become that railroads are now seen as an alternative for long-haul shipping.

This week, the chief marketing officer of Canadian Pacific Railway said the company expects big profits from shipping more oil-filled trains.

Jane O’Hagan told stock analysts the company hopes to ship 70,000 carloads of oil this year, driving revenues up 19 per cent.

In a sane universe, there’s no way railways should be able to compete economically with pipelines in shipping oil.

There’s also no way railways can be judged or made safer than pipelines.

Pipelines are not perfect.

Pipeline operators are not all beacons of corporate responsibility.

We know that from recent local experience.

Pipelines have ruptured in Central Alberta, threatening water supplies and destroying farmland.

Those pipelines were generations old, constructed and installed under regulations that would never be permitted today.

Major modern pipelines have also ruptured far from here, with local and international consequences.

The most notable — and from Alberta’s perspective, most damaging — is the recent history of Calgary-based Enbridge Inc.

Enbridge’s mishandling of pipelines has gravely threatened its plans to build a pipeline to the West Coast to ship Alberta oil to Asia.

A 2010 spill dumped more than 130,000 barrels of oil into a Michigan river.

That disaster, believed to have started with a pipeline flaw that went undetected for five years, was the most serious in U.S. history.

Cleanup costs were estimated at $800 million.

Near-term prospects for Enbridge and Alberta oil shippers look grim because of that disaster.

The B.C. Liberal government is running scared and seems certain to lose power to the development-adverse B.C. New Democratic Party in the spring election.

That means more Alberta crude oil will travel to West Coast tidewater in rail cars.

It means we can expect more oil spills rather than less.

No reasonable person can argue that shipping oil through B.C. by rail is safer than shipping by pipeline.

On average, the National Transportation Safety Board reports five train derailments a year in Alberta and three in British Columbia between 2007-2011.

Expand rail shipments of oil exponentially and you can expect the spills to rise in lockstep.

Incremental spills will likely be more damaging, because the only way to cross mountains by rail is traversing through the bottom of many river valleys.

Oil spilling from pipelines located well away from rivers is a shameful problem.

Oil spilling from rail cars adjacent to rivers is a catastrophe.

British Columbia has the right to plot its own course. Unfortunately, near-term politics and short-term vision make them likely to choose an option that’s worse for both the economy and the environment.

They should pay attention to Obama and follow his lead.

Joe McLaughlin is the retired former manager of the Red Deer Advocate.



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