Others’ Opinion: Keystone XL delay is a setback for public safety in Minnesota

Published 9:31 am Friday, November 6, 2015

The triumphant but misguided e-mail landed in inboxes just hours after the Canadian company pushing to build the Keystone XL pipeline announced it wants the U.S. government to suspend review of the pipeline’s construction permit application.

“We made our voices heard that we would stand up to protect our planet for future generations,” trumpeted a Democratic National Committee missive that urged climate-change activists to double down on their advocacy and share their personal e-mail with the DNC — likely for fundraising purposes.

But the latest delay for the oil pipeline shouldn’t inspire political victory dances. Particularly in Minnesota, the snag should spur a sense of alarm. This is a serious setback for public safety in a state where more than 425,000 people live within half-mile wide blast zones along heavily traveled oil train routes.

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Pipelines certainly aren’t a fail-safe way to transport crude, but they are widely considered the least risky way to move this volatile energy source. The alternatives are rail, trucks and tanker ships. Because of geography, Minnesota is one of the major railroad routes for transporting crude oil from North Dakota and Canada’s western provinces to refineries in the southern and eastern parts of the U.S.

An estimated 35 to 59 oil trains, some more than 100 tank cars long, roll through Minnesota each week. Many go through the Twin Cities metro area, and a recent letter written by Gov. Mark Dayton spotlighted a new oil train route that comes through west-metro communities and skirts Target Field.

Oil train accidents are rare. But fiery derailments do happen and can be deadly: A 2013 Quebec accident claimed 47 lives. A spur line planned from North Dakota’s oil fields to the Keystone XL would reduce, though not eliminate, the amount of oil-by-rail traffic coming through Minnesota. Now that the pipeline is in limbo again, so is this important public safety improvement.

The Keystone project requires federal approval because it crosses an international border. TransCanada’s decision to seek a suspension of its permit to build the pipeline spurred speculation. One theory is that the company believes President Obama will reject the project and that it is hopeful a friendly Republican president will be elected in 2016.

Obama, who is expected to make a decision on the pipeline before the end of his term, ought to heed his own administration’s analysis. Officials vetted environmental concerns. They also concluded that Canadian oil sands development — which climate-change activists are trying to thwart by killing Keystone — likely would continue if the pipeline failed to get approval.

At best, it’s unclear if rejecting the pipeline would slow climate change. It is clear, however, that public safety is best served when crude oil is transported through pipelines instead of the backyards of Minnesotans and others who live along oil train routes. That’s a reality Obama ought to heed as he edges closer to finally deciding Keystone XL’s fate.

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