Competing views on Lac-Mégantic explosion and the pipeline debate

An interesting divide has emerged in analysis of the effect of the Lac-Mégantic train disaster on the continuing debate over crude oil pipelines.

Early Saturday morning, a train carrying carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil shale in North Dakota derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. (

Andrew Leach, at the University of Alberta, suggested that this will hurt the prospect of pipeline approvals–such as the Keystone XL pipeline that is currently being reviewed by the U.S. State Department–because it “highlights the hazards of transporting crude oil.”  (  Many media stories–and particularly headlines–have followed this theme.

On the other hand, Tim Worstall at Forbes represents another camp, which argues that the danger of transporting crude by rail makes pipelines look safer by comparison, because pipelines “tend not to go through the centre of towns.”  (

This debate is further complicated by the analysis that the U.S. State Department presented in its draft environmental impact statement on TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  The State Department said that rejecting the pipeline would simply force “more crude oil to be transported via other modes of transportation, such as rail,” so approving the pipeline would not significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions from crude production.  (

Pipeline proponents, accepting this argument, may now argue that rejecting the pipeline will shift crude oil into more dangerous modes of transport, such as rail.  In contrast, pipeline opponents will say that focusing on the danger of rail shipments should mean new restrictions on these shipments.  As a result, they will reject the State Department’s premise:  they believe that if Keystone XL is stopped, other modes of transport can be stopped as well, significantly impacting crude production.

Thus, proponents are assuming that crude oil production will continue, and looking for the safest and most efficient mode of transport, while opponents are betting that it can be significantly slowed through a multi-pronged regulatory clamp down on transport.


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