In the last few years, the grassroots environmental movement has energetically opposed constructing big new oil pipelines in North America. Their opposition is understandable, since, on a global level, fossil fuel infrastructure encourages fossil fuel consumption, contributing to climate change, and, on a local level, oil pipelines leak and explode. But conservatives have been delighted to argue that greens are endangering the public and being short-sighted. Oil that comes out of the ground has to get to market somehow, and currently a huge amount of it is being shipped on freight trains. The result? An epidemic of oil train derailments, causing spills and even deadly explosions.
Is it fair to blame activists for this? Should climate hawks throw in the towel and accept Keystone XL as the lesser evil?
No and no — and I’ll explain two key reasons why.
First: Much of the oil criss-crossing the U.S. on trains is coming from North Dakota and traveling out along east/west routes where there aren’t even any proposals for big new pipelines. You can’t blame activists for that. Keystone would connect the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, but wouldn’t do anything to help move North Dakota’s fracked bounty. Right now rail is the main option for that. “Keystone XL would enable tar-sands expansion projects, but is unlikely to reduce crude-by-rail,” says Anthony Swift, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. But don’t just take his word for it. Oil-loving, Keystone-supporting North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) makes the same point: “I am not someone who has ever said that the Keystone pipeline will take crude off the rails. It won’t,” Heitkamp said in November. “Our markets are east and west and it would be extraordinarily difficult to build pipelines east and west.”
Second: Climate activists are supporting something that actually would go a long way toward solving the problem of dangerous oil trains: strict regulation of those trains.
In the long term, of course, climate hawks want to keep the oil in the soil, and they are pushing for structural changes — like an end to federal leases for oil drilling offshore and on federal land — that would reduce the amount of oil we produce in the U.S. But in the short term, they’re not just being unrealistic and saying “no” to all oil transport — they’re pushing to make that transport safer.
The Department of Transportation has the authority to impose rules on oil trains’ design and speed, which would reduce the risk of them leaking and exploding when they derail or crash. DOT made an initial proposal in July of last year and is expected to finalize it in May. Green groups have been disappointed by the proposal, though — both the weakness of the rules and the slowness of the timetable. If all goes according to plan, the rules would be implemented later this year, but their requirements would still take years to phase in.
Fortunately there’s now a stronger proposal that climate hawks can get behind: a new Senate bill that would impose stiffer requirements than those being proposed by the Obama administration. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) introduced the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act late last month, along with three Democratic cosponsors: Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Patty Murray (Wash.), and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.). It got immediate backing from big green groups.