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Published February 23 2013

Forum editorial: Keystone protesters ineffectual

Last week an estimated 30,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest against pending approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar sands crude oil from Alberta (and via spur, North Dakota Bakken crude) to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. The 30,000 figure was the organizers’ number. It’s likely fewer demonstrators were there, but it doesn’t matter if 30,000 or 30 showed up because their message was a scam.

The anti-pipeline crowd’s goal is to get the nation off fossil fuels, oil in particular, but coal also. Focusing on the pipeline, however, is phony and dumb. Whether Keystone XL is built or not, oil from Canada will reach the global oil market because demand is high. There will be no reduction in the “carbon footprint” if the pipeline is blocked. In fact, without the pipeline, oil will move by other means that are more fossil fuel intensive, and thus dirtier than an underground pipeline.

For example: Right now slightly more than 60 percent of Bakken crude moves out of North Dakota in railroad tank cars. A lot moves on trucks. Both are riskier, from a spill perspective, than a pipeline. That’s the reality. Oil, whether from North Dakota or Alberta, is going to refineries – and will continue to go to refineries – pipeline or not. All the self-righteous squealing at a D.C. feel-good rally will not change that.

If President Barack Obama backs away from his “all energy sources” pledge and stops Keystone XL, the winner will be railroads, not the environment. As if to confirm rail’s role in the North American oil boom, oil producers in North Dakota are building rail terminals capable of handling 1 million barrels of crude a day, most of which will end up on BNSF Railway’s unit trains. If Keystone XL is scuttled, Alberta oil will be pumped into rail cars for the trip south to the U.S. or west to Pacific ports and then onto ships bound for China.

Making a little noise at a Washington rally is not hard work. Roping in a couple of celebrity politicians guarantees a spot on network and cable news. Easy stuff. Meanwhile, the global oil market takes no notice, and crude from Canada, North Dakota and elsewhere keeps a-pumping.

And the demonstrators? They give themselves self-satisfied hugs, then go home by car, bus, airplane, maybe Amtrak – all powered by, you guessed it, fuels refined from crude oil …

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.