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…