The catastrophic crash of an oil-carrying train in the province of Quebec last month, which devastated the town of Lac-Mégantic and killed dozens, has brought the Keystone XL pipeline into the headlines again.
For many environmentalists, the train crash is just one more reminder of the risks of fossil fuel production – that the train was carrying tar sands oil was, as it were, the icing on the cake. Conversely, for many supporters of the pipeline, the train crash proves that we need Keystone.
But first a word on tar sands and the other unconventional oil sources now being extracted such as shale oil. Unlike conventional oil wells, shale and tar sands do not contain liquid oil. Oil must be extracted from them in a process that is quite similar to mining. The development of Canadian tar sands requires vast deforestation in order to dig up and process the sands, and shale oil extraction requires that massive amounts of rocks be mined and processed.
Extracting this oil requires incredible amounts of energy as well: while conventional oil production can produce 25 units of energy for every unit invested (25:1), tar sands perform as poorly as 2.9:1 and no better than 5:1. And this does not even include the entire lifecycle of tar sands: only the extraction and refinement.
Now take this extremely labor and energy intensive oil, ship it on a high-risk oil train, and you get the Quebec disaster. To some, that’s exactly why we need the Keystone pipeline. In a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Can environmentalists think?”, Bret Stephens writes, “When it comes to the question of how best to transport oil, environmentalists tend to act like rabbis being asked for advice on how best to roast a pig: The thing should not be done in the first place. So opposition to Keystone XL becomes an assertion of virtue, indifferent to such lesser considerations as efficiency (or succulence). But the pig will be roasted. The oil will be pumped. What happens then?”
In other words, because pipelines are safer than trains, the only valid position on Keystone XL is to support it.
But there’s a compelling point that Stephens entirely ignores. Chapter 14 in State of the World, “Keep Them in the Ground,” suggests that even if the problem of spills and accidents, and even air and water pollution could be solved, we should still keep most fossil fuels in the ground. To continue using them perpetuates the fossil fuel-based economy and accelerates climate change. And in the case of tar sands oil, production also requires vast deforestation – which itself contributes to carbon emissions. And it is not one oil field or one pipeline, but the entire fossil fuel infrastructure that must be scaled back. Building Keystone might prevent another train wreck while helping to wreck any possibility of climate stability or a sustainable human civilization.
Viewing the issue more broadly breaks down the glib logic of the Wall Street Journal editorial. The issue is not merely whether pipelines or trains are the better way to roast the planet. Our real choice is one between a chance at sustainability or great risk of ecological disaster. The editorial only makes the building of Keystone XL seem logical – even moral – by assuming that the development of shale and tar sands reserves is inevitable. But it is certainly not inevitable, and it is not even advisable.
It is admittedly uncomfortable to oppose the pipeline if it would really reduce the disasters that often involve oil trains. What happened in Quebec is a tragedy, whatever the causes. But if we are concerned with the future of sustainability as a whole, the long-term costs of Keystone are just too great to ignore.