On hearing of the catastrophe in Lac-Mégantic, our first thoughts were with the city's residents who had lost loved ones, friends, homes and businesses. But because the train was carrying crude to a New Brunswick refinery, second and third thoughts inevitably turned to the larger implications for continental energy security, oil transportation and Canada's oil sands.
The fires had barely been extinguished when commentators began saying the tragedy is proof that pipelines are safer than rail for carrying oil. Therefore, the argument goes, U.S. President Barack Obama should approve the Keystone XL pipeline to ship Alberta's bitumen to refineries in the southern United States.
But this logic is completely wrong. In fact, if Mr. Obama adheres to the criterion he has said will guide his decision on Keystone XL, the Lac-Mégantic accident effectively weakens the case for the pipeline and lowers, perhaps dramatically, the odds that he will approve it.
In his watershed speech on U.S. climate policy at Georgetown University last month, Mr. Obama stipulated that the pipeline won't be approved if it will lead to a net increase in carbon emissions. Remarking on the Keystone XL controversy, he noted that the U.S. State Department is in the final stages of evaluating the proposal. "But I do want to be clear," he continued. "Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation's interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward."
In other words, the pipeline's impact on climate, not safety, will be the administration's key criterion when it decides whether to approve Keystone XL.
Many supporters of the oil-sands industry breathed a sigh of relief after the speech, because the State Department has, in fact, already concluded that the pipeline's net impact on climate would be near zero. In its Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL Pipeline, released on March 1 this year, the agency said the pipeline "would result in no substantive change in global greenhouse gas emissions."
The report arrived at this conclusion by following a very specific and extraordinarily detailed chain of logic and analysis. But the essence of its argument is this: If Keystone XL isn't approved, the oil-sands industry will export its product from Alberta by other means – so "approval or denial of the proposed project is unlikely to have a substantial impact on the rate of development in the oil sands." And if Keystone XL won't make any difference to the oil sands' rate of development, then the pipeline's net impact on carbon emissions will be zero. Put differently, future carbon emissions from the oil sands are locked in, whether the pipeline is built or not.
A large section of the State Department's report is devoted to analyzing the viability of alternative ways of moving oil sands products out of Alberta, should Keystone XL not go ahead. And here is where the implications of the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe weigh most heavily – because the alternative that ranks at the top of the list is rail. The report says explicitly that rail can do the entire job, if necessary: "Rail and supporting non-pipeline modes should be capable of providing the capacity needed to transport all incremental Western Canadian … crude oil production to markets if there were no additional pipeline projects approved."
Few people in Canada seem to fully appreciate what the report actually says about the magnitude of projected oil sands shipments by rail, but its figures are astonishing. Shipping the amount of oil sands product that would otherwise be carried by Keystone XL would require 13 trains of 100 cars a day. The loading facilities for these trains would cover more than 14 square kilometres. By extrapolation, shipping the projected growth by 2030 in oil sands production – about three million barrels of extra output daily – entirely by rail would require more than 50 trains a day, with loading facilities covering more than 60 square kilometres.
Lac-Mégantic will make such enormous rail shipment of oil products far less acceptable to the public in both Canada and the United States. So the main identified alternative to Keystone XL is unlikely to be available at anything like the scale needed. If so, the pipeline's approval would directly enable expansion of oil sands' extraction and would therefore lead to a large net increase in oil sands carbon emissions – violating Mr. Obama's main criterion for approving the project.
Thomas Homer-Dixon teaches global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.