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MCCOWN: Transporting oil safely means pipelines

Tragedy in Quebec demonstrates the hazards of rail

- - Monday, July 15, 2013

Over the past four years, opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline have vehemently argued that the project will cause irreparable harm to the environment. Yet, time and time again, their claims have inevitably proven to be grounded deeper in political rhetoric than in scientific fact.

One of their most persistent arguments was recently dismantled when a study released by the National Research Council — the government's independent adviser on scientific matters, as commissioned by Congress — confirmed what energy experts have been saying for months: The petroleum derived from Canadian oil sands — diluted bitumen — which would be transported by the Keystone XL pipeline into the United States, is no more corrosive than conventional petroleum and no more likely to cause pipeline spills.

This study, which was commissioned by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and conducted by a panel of scientists, wasn't the only bit of disappointing news Keystone XL opponents received recently.

Until last month's address on climate issues at Georgetown University, President Obama had, for the most part, kept his distance on Keystone, deferring any formal commitment until the State Department completed a formal review of the application. Then, during his remarks, he indicated he wouldn't allow the Keystone XL project to proceed unless it was proven that it "doesn't significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

This announcement was almost as significant to the Keystone debate as the National Research Council report because in a draft report released in March, the State Department already found that the project would not significantly contribute to increased greenhouse-gas emissions. The State Department report noted, correctly, that with or without this pipeline, the Canadian oil sands were likely to be developed and the oil extracted.

Make no mistake: The Canadian oil will be moved to market and brought into the United States. If the Keystone XL pipeline is not approved as part of an all-of-the-above shipping process, than the oil will be transported by truck or by rail. As demonstrated by the recent horrific oil-train derailment in Quebec, where at least 24 people tragically lost their lives and dozens are still missing, shipping by rail doesn't guarantee safety. This fact, though, doesn't fit into the misguided narrative told by Keystone XL opponents.

Unfortunately for our economy and our country, this debate has rarely been about facts. If the debate had more to do with facts and less to do with hyperpartisan political agendas, the Keystone XL pipeline would have been completed months ago.

The fact is, pipelines remain the safest, most secure, least carbon-intensive and most efficient way to transport large volumes of energy products over great distances. Pipelines are 530 percent safer than rail transportation, and 49,590 percent safer than transportation by truck for a ton-mile of freight. As pipelines go, Keystone XL would be the safest and most technologically advanced ever constructed. Unlike both rail and truck, pipelines don't require a round trip to move commodities to market.

We know for a fact that this project will create thousands of new American jobs and send us on our way to energy independence by replacing upward of 5 million barrels of oil per day that we currently import. This is why so many people across the spectrum, and a majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans, support Keystone XL.

This debate has dragged on for far too long. Since the permit was first filed, we could have built the Empire State Building four times over. The application has been ensnared in seemingly endless reviews and delays, a review period spanning a time frame longer than the entirety of World War II (1,366 days). It's time to end this debate once and for all, and to move past the political posturing. Every day of inaction costs our nation jobs while denying the country a critically important energy resource.

Brigham McCown is a former U.S. energy-transportation safety chief who served in both terms of the George W. Bush administration.