Will Blocking the Keystone XL Pipeline Slow the Flow of Oil?

The state of the universe.
Feb. 20 2013 10:56 AM

Is the Keystone XL Pipeline Worth Getting Arrested For?

While opponents protest, oil companies turn to railroads.

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In addition, Braziel points out that the railroads are eager to work with the oil industry, especially since their once-reliable coal-hauling business is getting hammered as electric utilities are shutting down many of their coal-fired plants and replacing them with natural gas-fired ones.

While U.S. and Canadian railroads are hauling most of their crude south and east, a group of Canadian businessmen is aiming to build a huge rail project that could haul 5 million barrels of crude per day northwest from Fort McMurray, Alberta, to Valdez, Alaska, where it could be loaded onto supertankers. The proposal has reportedly received approval from native tribes in Alaska and Canada and could begin operating as soon as 2018.

The Sierra Club’s president, Michael Brune, was among those arrested in Washington last week. He said that he wanted Obama to “fight with both fists” against climate change. He added that, “For the first time in the Sierra Club's 120-year history, we have joined the ranks of visionaries of the past and present to engage in civil disobedience.”

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There’s no doubt that developing Canadian oil sands will contribute to climate change. All hydrocarbons—coal, oil, and natural gas—emit carbon dioxide during combustion. But blocking a pipeline isn’t the same as blocking the flow of oil.

If the pipeline project is stopped, it would be a big win for environmental groups like 350.org and Sierra Club. On Sunday, McKibben declared that “Finally, powerfully, decisively—the movement to stop climate change has come together.”

Billions of dollars are riding on the fate of Keystone XL. If the Obama administration stymies the project, a big loser will be TransCanada, the Canadian firm that’s trying to build the $7 billion project.

The biggest winner from a halted Keystone XL will be the railroads. And of them, the biggest winner might just be the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, the conglomerate controlled by Obama supporter and Omaha billionaire Warren Buffett. In December, the CEO of BNSF, Matthew Rose, said that his railroad was shipping about 500,000 barrels of oil per day out of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota and that it was seeking a permit to send “crude by rail to the Pacific Northwest.” He also said the railroad expects to “eventually” be shipping 1 million barrels of oil per day.

There’s no small bit of irony here. A century ago, populists on the left rose to prominence by condemning the moneyed interests, and in particular, the big banks and the railroads. The Populist Party Platform of 1892 said that “the people must own the railroads.” And yet now, in the name of reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the environmental left could hand the railroads a major windfall and get nothing in return but a symbolic victory.

Condemning the oil industry, holding rallies, and getting arrested at the White House is easy. Preventing the world’s single most important commodity from getting to the marketplace? That’s a lot harder.

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author, most recently, of Power Hungry: The Myths of "Green" Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.