Alberta’s New U.S. Envoy: Oil Train Disaster Would Spur Keystone XL

Workers stand before mangled tanker cars at the crash site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada in 2013. CREDIT: AP/RYAN REMIORZ
Workers stand before mangled tanker cars at the crash site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Canada in 2013. CREDIT: AP/RYAN REMIORZ

When asked what it will take to get the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline approved, Alberta’s new envoy to Washington, former Alberta MP Rob Merrifield, had a very direct response:

It will take a potential — which is devastating — Lac-Mégantic experience in America. [That] would tip it and the Democrats would have no choice and would bail on the President on this one.

With Lac-Mégantic, Merrifield is referring to the 2013 oil train crash in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic that killed 47 people and devastated much of the town’s center. He said that an event like this would sway at least the three Democrats needed to approve the pipeline in the Senate. He advised President Obama to consider the possibility of a spill of this magnitude and hopes he will “feel the pressure and understand this is in the best interest of America to approve Keystone.”

Before accepting the job as Alberta’s representative to the United States, Merrifield was already spending about half his time in the U.S. as a representative for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. At that job he pushed for Keystone XL approval, and this job “will be a continuation of that work.”


Merrifield may not be any more successful at his new job than he was at his old job if he keeps pointing out the upside of deadly oil train explosions. He also is off base in assuming that oil pipelines are safer than oil trains as a means of transporting dirty, environmentally degrading, and greenhouse gas-intense tar sands. While it might appear on the surface that pipelines are safer than shipping oil by rail, they are subject to explosions, spills, leaks, terrorist attacks, and other failures that threaten water supplies, wildlife, and population centers.

Crude oil shipments by rail in the U.S. are increasing and so are associated incidents. However the same is happening with pipelines as natural gas production grows. Neither option is assuredly safe, it’s more like “pick your poison.”

For example, around the same time as the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline burst in Mayflower, Arkansas and spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of Canadian heavy crude oil. A year later many residents had moved and others were experiencing serious health problems.

It is estimated that between 2011 and 2013, U.S. pipelines spilled an average of 85,000 barrels of hazardous liquids per year, according to the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, causing an average of $220,610,358 in property damage.

Rebecca Craven, program director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a safety advocacy group based in Washington State, told InsideClimate News earlier this year that states are becoming just as concerned with pipelines as they are with rail shipments.


“States are becoming more aware of new pipelines being proposed in their states, or expansion of existing pipelines, or changes in [a pipeline’s] products,” she said. “As a result of public concerns being raised, they’re starting to respond by undertaking state-level spill response plans. I think it could be a trend.”

For now, the only thing exploding about the Keystone XL is the cost. According to developer TransCanada Corp, the cost of building the pipeline may climb 85 percent to $10 billion. Russ Girling, chief executive Calgary, Alberta,-based TransCanada told the Wall Street Journal this week that “the cost to build the Keystone XL pipeline, currently estimated at $5.4 billion, is expected to double by the time the U.S. government completes its review of the largest part of the project.”

Transcanada first applied for a permit six years ago. The federal government is now awaiting the outcome of a Nebraska court battle over the pipeline’s path through the state before making a ruling.

One thing Merrifield is right about is the if the U.S. Senate swings Republican, they will likely approve the pipeline. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said that if Republicans get the majority this year “the Keystone pipeline will be voted on on the floor of the Senate.”

To back him up, on Thursday all 45 Republican senators sent a letter to President Obama, calling on him, yet again, to approve the pipeline. In the letter they say the pipeline would “help us strengthen America’s energy security.” That claim is complicated by the fact that TransCanada won’t promise that the oil transported down Keystone XL would stay in the United States.