Bret Stephens: Think of the Keystone XL pipeline as an IQ test for greens

Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens writes:

As environmental disasters go, the explosion Saturday of a runaway train that destroyed much of the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, about 20 miles from the Maine border, will probably go down the memory hole.

It lacks the correct moral and contains an inconvenient truth.

Not that the disaster lacks the usual ingredients of such a moral. The derailed 72-car train belonged to a subsidiary of Illinois-based multinational Rail World, whose self-declared aim is to “promote rail industry privatization.” The train was carrying North Dakota shale oil (likely extracted by fracking) to the massive Irving Oil refinery in the port city of Saint John, to be shipped to the global market. At least five people were killed in the blast (a number that’s likely to rise) and 1,000 people were forced to evacuate. Quebec’s environment minister reports that some 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of crude have spilled into the Chaudière River, meaning it could reach Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River before too long.

Environmentalists should be howling. But this brings us to the inconvenient truth.

The reason oil is moved on trains from places like North Dakota and Alberta is because there aren’t enough pipelines to carry it. The provincial governments of Alberta and New Brunswick are talking about building a pipeline to cover the 3,000-odd mile distance. But last month President Obama put the future of the Keystone XL pipeline again in doubt, telling a Georgetown University audience “our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

Did the explosion at Lac-Mégantic not significantly exacerbate the problem of pollution, carbon or otherwise? Why do environmentalists routinely frame political choices in the language of moral absolutes—save/destroy the planet; “don’t be mean, go green,” and so on—rather than as complex questions involving trade-offs that are best dealt with pragmatically?

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?

Like water, business has a way of tracing a course of least resistance. Pipelines are a hyper-regulated industry but rail transport isn’t, so that’s how we now move oil…

Read more at the WSJ ($ubscription required).

5 thoughts on “Bret Stephens: Think of the Keystone XL pipeline as an IQ test for greens”

  1. “The reason oil is moved on trains from places like North Dakota and Alberta is because there aren’t enough pipelines to carry it”

    Did anyone notice that there is a distinct difference between North Dakota’s light crude moving North to Canada by rail and Alberta’s heavy bitumen moving South by pipeline via the Keystone ?

    And why that is happening in the first place ?

  2. The author ignores the facts of pollution and accidents occur with pipelines on a much more frequent basis.. Tell the people ofLA about how safe pipelines are.

  3. The enviro-fascists don’t care about human lives. Pipelines don’t travel through communities where people live. Trains do. Their dogma believes in human sacrifice. That’s exactly what they did w/ this derailment. Updated number of dead is 15. There yet may be more.

  4. They don’t need any suggestions about regulating rail, Bret. They just have priorities.

  5. Many commenters here have said, sensibly, that pipelines are generally the fastest, safest and least costly way of moving liquid product. They add that there are places and situations where rail makes more sense. That sounds about right to me. Interfering with valuable pipelines because the pig should not be roasted at all is foolish, even wicked.
    There is value in some absolutes: adultery is hard to justify at all, for example, or theft or any form of cruelty. That’s not the situation here, as the article notes: in the real world, we need energy to build a decent standard of living, the one where children get vaccinations instead of diphtheria and food stays healthy in the refrigerator instead of spoiling. That energy production does have costs and trade-offs, but the pig does need roasting.

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