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U.S. petroleum traffic by rail increased by 57 per cent in the first 12 weeks of this year alone, while in Canada it increased 30 per cent.Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

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If you were to put together a train that represented the increase – and only the increase – in the amount of oil being transported annually by rail in North America compared with two years ago, that train would stretch from Winnipeg to Houston, Texas.

U.S. President Barack Obama might want to bear this in mind, as he ponders whether to permit construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. While Americans and Canadians debate the economic and environmental impact of that pipeline, which would send bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, the market has taken matters into its own invisible hands.

According to the Association of American Railroads, petroleum traffic by rail increased by 57 per cent in the first 12 weeks of this year alone. On the Canadian side, it increased 30 per cent. The tragic derailment at Lac-Mégantic, Que., is not expected to affect this trend.

"If the trend in the increase of U.S. and Canadian rail traffic for petroleum and petroleum products maintains its current pace for the rest of 2013, it would result in an estimated additional 468,000 rail carloads of petroleum products in 2013 compared to 2011," so concludes a report on public attitudes and policy implications for energy and the environment by pollster Nik Nanos, who recently finished a stint as scholar-in-residence at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Mr. Nanos's findings do not bode well for environmentalists.

Separate telephone-based surveys that Nanos Research conducted in Canada and the United States found the desire for energy self-sufficiency heavily trumps environmental concerns in both countries. Sixty-three per cent of Americans said energy self-sufficiency is more important than reducing greenhouse gas emissions; 30 per cent said reducing emissions matters more. (In Canada the numbers were 55 per cent to 38 per cent.)

On the question of whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline – which environmentalists in both countries hotly oppose – 75 per cent of Americans said they were aware of the issue, and 74 per cent of those who were aware supported approval for the pipeline, while only 21 per cent opposed it. (The rest were unsure.) In Canada, the numbers were 68 per cent and 28 per cent, suggesting that Americans are behind the pipeline even more than Canadians.

And yet media coverage appears to suggest Americans are sharply divided over the pipeline, or even opposed to it outright. Actually, not all media; just one.

Mr. Nanos's analysis of more than 1,000 articles and opinion pieces in major American newspapers showed that coverage of the Keystone debate has been largely balanced, with one exception: The New York Times has been so relentlessly negative that it skews the overall national balance from negative-5 per cent to negative-14 per cent.

"There is actually just one media organization that has a significant footprint that has had a disproportionate impact" on the debate, Mr. Nanos said Sunday in an interview.

Meanwhile, as the North American economy slowly recovers from the recession, and as shale-oil and oil-sands production ramp up, industry is finding ways to move the stuff, pipeline or no pipeline.

Mr. Nanos's study concludes American and Canadian policy makers should stop worrying about how energy is produced. The better approach, he says, is for the two countries to establish an overall envelope for greenhouse gas and other emissions, an envelope that steadily shrinks over time, and "let each of those energy sources compete to develop technologies that hit an environmental target, without trying to pick winners and losers."

Though that train stretching from Winnipeg to Houston suggests consumer demand will have its way, no matter what the politicians say or do.

John Ibbitson is the chief political writer in the Ottawa bureau.

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