The oil train glut shows how little the Keystone XL pipeline matters

December 18, 2014

How important is the Keystone XL pipeline really?

When it comes to moving petroleum through the United States, the Keystone XL pipeline is the rock star of transportation modes, garnering an extra large share of attention from politicians, activists and the press. Just this week, Senate Majority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell announced that passage of a bill approving the pipeline will be his first order of business when the 114th Congress convenes in January. Opponents, meanwhile, point to environmental and safety concerns, often citing the adverse impact that the pipeline would have on climate change and  fossil fuel dependency.

But while the Keystone XL would move an estimated 830,000 barrels a day of oil over its 1200 miles from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast, that’s not even a rounding error in the over 2.5 million miles of pipelines that weave their way throughout the country. And even that isn’t enough to satisfy the pulsing demand for bubbling crude.

On Monday, a Reuters report by Jarrett Renshaw highlighted the extent to which oil-carrying freight trains increasingly clog the nation’s rail lines, much to the concern of safety-minded local officials–especially after The devastating July train derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic–and sometimes at the expense of taxpayers.  According to the report, oil-train traffic has grown to an amazing 42-times its 2009 level, and while the railroad industry spends $24 billion per year building infrastructure, $84.2 million in taxpayer money has been written into 10 federal and state grants that either have been approved or are seeking approval.

This Reuters graphic helps elucidate the explosion in the number of oil-train loading and unloading terminals in the U.S., from a smattering located in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Louisiana, to dozens extending from Maine to Texas to Southern California to Washington state. This dizzying interactive map from the U.S. Energy Information Agency offers more insight into America’s interwoven tapestry of oil refineries and modes of petroleum transportation, including pipelines and rail.

Rail lines have been sufficiently clogged–and, to many, potentially dangerous–that in May Reuters reported that farmers in the Northern Plains were struggling to move their crops, causing some to shy away from planting corn in favor of less physically voluminous options. Despite allocating fewer acres, corn yields hit record levels, and the transportation problem has not abated. The issue has grown so bad that last month Warren Buffett declared that his BNSF railroad would refrain from adding more oil tank cars to the glut.

The Keystone XL pipeline is the cause célèbre of a small army of climate change activists, but a realistic look at American energy infrastructure shows that it is little more than a poster child.

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2 comments

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Yes, but with one important distinction – the rail transported oil is for domestic use while the KXL transported one will almost exclusively, be for exports.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

What Michael fails to mention however is that the Keystone XL Pipeline’s purpose is to transport heavy tar sand oil from Alberta Canada to the Gulf Coast. There has been some mention that a small amount of Bakken crude may be used to “lubricate” the heavy tar sand oil, but all and all, the amount of Bakken oil transported via this pipeline is barely negligible or not at all.

Secondly, the destination for the Bakken oil (by rail) is quite varied. It goes to all coasts in the U.S. and the best way to get it to those refineries is by the existing rail network. Pipelines would have to be built across the entire U.S. Not economically feasible even if it can get through congress with the president’s signature.

Projections show that oil-by-rail will continue to increase over the next few years, then plateau to 2035.

The bottom line is that oil-by-rail is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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Posted by DOT111Reader | Report as abusive