Death of Keystone increases risk to people and the environment

Printer-friendly version
Appeared in the Calgary Sun, June 16, 2021
Death of Keystone increases risk to people and the environment

Last week, TC Energy (formerly TransCanada Pipelines) announced it will shut down activities and disengage from the Keystone XL pipeline. The thousand-mile bone of contention, in both the United States and Canada, is officially dead.

And that’s sad because a more clear-cut choice between higher-risk and lower-risk methods of moving the fuels that power modern economies may never have existed. And voters, acting through their elected governments in both the U.S. and Canada, have essentially voted for more risk when moving oil. More leaks and spills, more rail accidents, and higher-cost mobility and transportation.

Here’s the bottom line. Modern society is utterly dependent on petroleum products to generate a decent quality of life for its people. This is simply indisputable. The scale of that dependency is such that moving petroleum hither and thither will be necessary for decades to come.

This means that no matter how we might want to wish it away, we cannot avoid making hard rationally-driven choices about how to manage the risks of that reality. And we have chosen badly because petroleum will continue to be transported in massive volumes for decades, and the safest way to move it via land is through pipelines.

A volume of oil moved by rail (which is how it will move in the absence of pipelines) is 4.5 times more likely to experience some kind of accident in transit and 2.5 times more likely to result in a release of oil into the environment than moving that same volume of oil the same distance by pipeline. This is a demonstrable fact, calculated from hard experiential data. It’s not an abstract model, it’s a measured reality.

The reasons for this are self-evident. Modern pipelines are fixed infrastructure, usually buried and shielded from external destructive forces. Their concentrated flows can be monitored in real-time and controlled with reasonable precision. The risks involved are well understood, and technology exists to manage them efficiently. When there’s an accidental release of product, it’s usually in facilities designed to be cleaned up rather than in the line of the pipe.

None of this is true of moving oil by rail. Rail infrastructure is inherently commingled with other kinds of dynamic transportation infrastructure, petroleum products intermingle with other products of greater and lesser risk, the transportation route is circuitous and dynamic, and system complexity precludes high-quality monitoring of real-time events and problems. Worse still, as pipelines avoid dense population centres, railways move right through them, so moving oil by rail exposes more people and property to risks simply due to greater proximity.

Governments in North America have some serious problems when it comes to managing risks rationally—problems that cost lives, treasure, time and limited resources. If society can’t get something as concrete and simple as this choice right, how can we possibly expect it to get right the bigger things? (See the pandemic.)

People must insist on rational risk management by governments if we really want to live in a world of greater prosperity with lower risks to human and environmental health.

The slaying of Keystone XL was a victory for governance based on emotion and fear, and a loss for governance based on reason and fact. As we survey this policy-wreckage, as environmental activists love to say, we must commit ourselves to Build Back Better.