The environmental case for Keystone pipeline

The News TribuneMarch 6, 2013 

A massive new environmental study strengthens the case for building the Keystone XL oil pipeline. That’s good news for the Pacific Northwest.

The State Department’s new environmental impact assessment concluded that Alberta’s tar sand oil is going to find a way to international markets. It also pointed out the obvious: The planned pipeline is both safer and cleaner than the probable alternatives, which include relentless rail shipments to a fleet of tankers in Northwest waters.

The Keystone pipeline – which would allow shipments of crude from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries – has become the bete noire of many American environmentalists. Its critics raise many objections, including the risk of spills.

But pipelines – as opposed to trucks, rail cars and ships – are the least risky way to move petroleum and natural gas. The United States is already laced with 2.6 million miles of pipelines; a 1,700-mile addition with state-of-the-art safety features would pose no special threat to the lands it passes through.

The real concern is that most of the petroleum from Alberta’s vast tar sands formations would ultimately be burned as fuel, thus contributing to climate change. Many pipeline opponents believe that if they stop the Keystone project, they can keep that crude locked in the Earth.

Not so. As the assessment concludes, Canada can find other ways to transport its tar sands oil to willing buyers. It doesn’t need Keystone, which requires approval by President Barack Obama.

Alberta’s oil, thick and sludgy, can be carried by rail to Oklahoma, where pipelines already built or approved can take it the rest of the way to the Gulf. The necessary capacity is readily available.

Or Canada can simply avoid the United States entirely. The oil could be shipped by train or pipeline to British Columbia and there pumped into tankers. The most likely terminal is Prince Rupert, on the province’s northern coastline, but large quantities could also be transported to Vancouver, B.C., then shipped through the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The Keystone project cannot be judged in a vacuum. Every form of shipment carries some risk, but tankers and railroads pose much greater spill risks than underground pipelines. Tankers and railroads also burn diesel; unlike pipelines, they dump large quantities of carbon dioxide into the air.

It’s hard to imagine a realistic – realistic – scenario in which Canada lets its oil sit in the ground. It’s easy to imagine scenarios worse than what the pipeline offers. The president shouldn’t have to spend restless nights thinking this one through.

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