Oil Pipelines vs Trains and Forest Fires

Freight trains are driving more slowly this summer because climate change is real and people increasingly hate oil and gas pipelines.

This adds to the time of moving goods from coast to coast and increases the cost of everyday items while further straining already stretched supply lines. It is also more dangerous - for people and the environment.

Let's unpack this:

Oil and gas pipelines are big business and do a dirty but necessary job: moving energy from where it is extracted to where it is used or exported.

They fulfill a critical function, not just for the economy, but also for regular people who need to heat their homes, drive to work and look after their families.

The main problem with pipelines is that there are a lot of problems:

  • For one thing, pipelines nearly always move dirty types of energy, most often oil and natural gas.

  • They are very visible, naturally unpopular (would you want one in your backyard?) and inherently have to cross a lot of territory - including neighborhoods, counties and even states - that may profit off of them but do not necessarily need or use the underlying fossil fuel.

  • They are also dangerous. And vulnerable to attack, as we found out to our mutual cost this spring.

The other thing about pipelines if that they are deeply hated by environmentalists and the green energy industry.


Why? Well...

  • Once pipelines exist they lower the cost of fossil fuels and thereby structurally incentivize consumers to keep using and depending on them.

  • They have long lives (30-50 years). They also leak, especially as they age.

  • Pipelines also become popular in at least some places. They create jobs, make other jobs possible and keep utility bills lower than the case would be otherwise. This creates naturally supportive communities which resist investing and using alternatives.

  • They are also - relatively speaking - safer.

So, pipelines are controversial. On the one hand, big whoop, this is hardly a shocking statement. On the other, this status as an emblem of climate change is leading to endless "pipelines wars" over their construction, maintenance, expansion and mere existence.

These wars are increasingly succeeding in favor of the anti-pipeline camp - at least to a degree. Keystone XL was canceled. Dakota Access is under real uncertainty and the Enbridge 5 is now forbidden from upgrading and involved in a now familiar fight. This might seem like a great thing if you are a deeply committed to green energy or believe deeply that we, as a society, must do more, more quickly to decarbonize our economy.

However, it is having a lot of knock on effects. For one thing, the energy still needs to move from A to B. So, trucks and especially trains are transporting more and more energy.

This outcome is sadly:

  • Less efficient and more costly.

  • Burns more fuel to move the fuel to where it needs to be.

  • Considerably more dangerous and not just from the occasional and horrific accident.

Further, it doesn't really stop the use of fossil fuels. It just adds some costs to doing so, which is deeply regressive (this ensures it hurts poor people more) and so adds social costs to the economic ones.

Battles over pipelines are likely to only increase in the years ahead and so it's no surprise that some pipeline companies are simply giving up. It should also be no surprise that train companies are making aggressive merger offers for each other. They know how long we will rely on fossil fuels and that they are, to simplify, the only growing game in town. This is particularly the case across the US-Canadian border.

As we have covered before in Pebble 2, there are ways to dramatically lower our oil and gas consumption but they must be done with real care. If not you risk either moving the exploration and production of these fuels elsewhere and/or increasing amounts of renewables through subsidies.

There are ways to do some of it easily and cleanly but its not obvious that protesting pipelines gets this done. It might simply complicate matters further and make it harder to reach our medium or long term climate goals. It also might mean move the same amount of oil less efficiently.

For now, trains will be moving more slowly during what will likely be a long hot summer, otherwise sparks from their wheels are likely to cause more forest fires, which will only release more costly carbon into the atmosphere and, yes, slow down the amount of oil moved from where it is extracted to where it is used.


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