Amtrak and the Keystone Pipeline

It’s easy to oppose the Keystone Pipeline on environmental and social grounds, isn’t it?

After all, last week’s Santa Barbara, California oil spill is killing many birds, animals, and fish, and is despoiling miles of Pacific coast line, because of a single 24 inch pipeline leak. Imagine the level of damage that might be inflicted on us if a massive pipeline that extends from Canada to the Gulf Coast suddenly ruptures!

Nevertheless, though it might seem like a no-brainer to oppose Keystone, last week’s Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia might offer a contrary argument. Many commuters died, and more than two hundred were injured, when the train leaped off the tracks and turned into a twisted wreck.

Why might this commuter train disaster make us think twice about the Keystone debate? It’s not because of what might occur in the future if the pipeline is approved and commences operations. Instead, it’s because of what is already occurring in the present because the project has been delayed for regulatory reasons.

You see, crude oil is still being shipped to the Gulf Coast for refining activities, but without a pipeline to carry the inventory, trains full of the highly flammable product are delivering it instead. In fact, trains across the country now carry crude oil on the same tracks as commuter trains, worrying environmentalists and social activists who complain about the immense damage from rail explosions.

Last week’s Amtrak train crash was particularly worrisome because there is reason to suspect that it may have been caused by projectiles that were thrown or shot by bystanders. If projectiles at a commuter train can kill many people and injure hundreds, how much damage could a similar attack cause on an oil train that is traveling through a residential community on a commuter line?

In other words, the elimination of a pipeline project does not necessarily prevent any possibility of environmental or social damage. Instead, it may simply shift the possibility of such damage to a potentially far more horrible train-based scenario.

Of course, this concern does not necessarily mean that we should feel compelled to support Keystone. But it does indeed mean that, before deciding to oppose Keystone, we should consider the natural consequences of such a policy.