Quebec Train Crash Fuels Pipeline Debate

Jul 15, 2013
Originally published on July 12, 2013 2:45 pm

Supporters and opponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline are using the Canadian train explosion to bolster their point of view.

Pipeline advocates say transporting oil by rail is dangerous and should be moved through pipelines, not by train.

Opponents of the Keystone project say oil and gas are too dangerous to transport by any method and that the U.S. should lessen its reliance on fossil fuels.


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It's HERE AND NOW. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti, in for Robin Young. Across Quebec tomorrow, Canadians will hold vigils for the dozens of people killed in last week's catastrophic oil tank train explosion. Neighboring towns in Vermont and Maine are also expected to honor the victims. And now, the disaster is taking another turn. It's becoming a focal point for both sides in the battle over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. NPR's senior editor Marilyn Geewax is following the story. She joins us now. Hi, Marilyn.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi. Great to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: It's great to have you. So, first, what are the pipeline's supporters saying?

GEEWAX: Well, their argument is that, as we can see, oil just can't be stopped. The world is hungry for this oil. They want it. People are producing it. It's going to move one way or the other. So the only question, really, is: Will it move through pipelines, or will it continue to move through these railcars? And so the folks who support the pipeline say: Look at what happened. Trains go right through the heart of a city. Innocent people can get blown up. A pipeline typically moves through areas that are very unpopulated. It's a lot safer if something does go wrong, because it's out in a remote area. So they're looking at this as case closed. There's nothing really here to argue. Pipelines are safer - at least that's their opinion.

CHAKRABARTI: And Keystone XL's opponents, I imagine they see it completely differently.

GEEWAX: Well, they say the - they look at the same accident and see it in a completely different light. They say this proves exactly our point, that oil and gas, these fossil fuels, they're part of the past. They're too dangerous. You can't really transport them over long distances. Say what you will about wind turbines. Maybe you don't like the way they look, but they don't blow up. They don't kill 50, 60 people at once. So, you know, the argument is that this proves solar and wind have to be the future, because it's safer. And building this pipeline infrastructure will only set us on this path that continues fossil fuels. So that's their side of the argument.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting. And, Marilyn, you've reported that either way, the Energy Information Agency says - has said this week that U.S. rail shipments of oil and petroleum are up almost 50 percent from the same time last year. That's a remarkable increase. But I wonder: Is this a case in which both sides might actually be right? The U.S. needs oil. In the short run, a pipeline may be a good way of transporting it. But in the long run, the country also needs to develop alternative energy sources, as well. So has this Quebec tragedy highlighted, basically, the twofold challenge when it comes to America's energy future?

GEEWAX: That's exactly the problem. The pipeline can be built pretty quickly, when you think about it. I mean, it's a 36-inch pipe. It's, you know, just a matter of hooking it all up, and parts of it already exist. So the company that wants to build it says that they can do it and have it all in place by 2015, if they just get the green light from the White House this summer or perhaps this fall. So they say this is fast. We'll handle it, and it'll be safer. The other people say, long term, it's such a problem.

The thing for the White House, what really is in front of President Obama is that this is a tough decision, because his supporters, the base - a lot of liberals, a lot of environmentalists - are very opposed to this. They don't want a pipeline built. But at the same time, the president really does want to create jobs. And if you're in the pipefitters union, you might really want to see those pipelines built.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, Marilyn Geewax is a senior business editor at NPR. Marilyn, thank you.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.