On Saturday, a train hauling 72 cars of North Dakota crude oil derailed in a small Quebec town just north of the Maine border, creating an explosion that destroyed more than 30 buildings and left more than 15 dead and 37 missing.
Authorities say those who are missing may never be found, as their bodies may have been vaporized.
More than 26,000 gallons of oil spilled into the nearby Chaudiere River.
Authorities are claiming negligence could have caused the derailment, but an investigation is ongoing. The train was owned by Chicago-based Rail World Inc.
It was the “worst case scenario” that oil industry skeptics have predicted since the beginning of the North American oil boom, and it highlighted the potential dangers facing communities throughout the continent.
Just days after the incident, supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline have used the Canadian tragedy as a selling point for the project, which would allow more than 800,000 barrels of tar sand oil to be transported 1,700 miles from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.
“It’s been a real shame that a lot of the public and especially the activists have pushed the public to sway so much from pipelines which are likely much, much safer over time,” Arthur Salzer, chief executive of Northland Wealth Management told the Calgary Herald. “It is going to be something that’s going to weigh on the public’s mind.”
Salzer’s statement is appalling to those who have rallied against the Keystone XL pipeline, particularly environmental organizations that have been calling for investment in clean energy and a general move away from an oil industry they consider to be archaic.
Sierra Club Deputy Director of Beyond Oil Kate Colarulli told Mint Press News that it’s devastating that those pushing Keystone have used the tragedy as a platform for furthering their agenda. Through her eyes, there shouldn’t even be a debate over whether oil should be transported by rail or pipeline, because neither are necessary.
“That’s a false choice,” she said. “We don’t have to choose what type of disaster we want.”
Alternatives to oil transport debate
The Sierra Club applauded the Obama administration’s 2012 fuel efficiency standards, which called for increased fuel efficiency standards on all cars by model year 2025. It was a move the administration estimated will save consumers roughly $1.7 trillion at the pump, reducing overall U.S. consumption by 12 billion barrels.
The Sierra Club likes the sound of that — and while it’s not the entire solution to reducing America’s reliance on oil, it’s a start.
Colarulli claims this is the issue Americans should be focusing on rather than engaging in a political battle over how oil will be transported.
“That’s the technology we should be investing in,” she said.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, transportation in the U.S. eats up the majority of the nation’s oil consumption. That’s not good news for those pushing for change. However, the organization estimated that by 2030, clean vehicles — those that run on as little gasoline as possible — could cut consumption in half, by at least 50 billion gallons a year.
That’s what Colarulli is talking about. She and her organization see the window opening for clean energy to supplement the oil industry that many claim is necessary to keep America’s economy — and cars — driving.
Along with the environmental benefits of reducing the amount of oil entering American gas tanks, Colarulli says fuel-efficient vehicles also provide protection against oil spills and disasters like the one seen in Quebec.
“As long as we continue to demand oil, we’re going to continue to see things like this,” she said.
While the Quebec oil spill was the most devastating in recent years, essentially obliterating an entire community, North America has seen its fair share of oil spills caused by train in 2013.
In March, a train hauling Canadian tar sand oil spilled in rural northwestern Minnesota, dumping roughly 30,000 gallons of crude oil onto a farm field. At that point, the state was still covered in snow, which prevented the spill from entering the soil, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
In Mayflower, Ark., an oil spill dumped more than 420,000 of oil into a residential neighborhood, causing the evacuation of entire communities. ExxonMobil, the company responsible for the pipeline spill, has yet to offer an explanation.
Those who oppose Keystone XL point to disasters like this, saying it’s not a matter of “if” a spill happens, but “when.” For those living along the pipeline’s path, the concern is real — and personal.
“The fact of the matter is that we are going to continue to see these disasters,” Colarulli said.
Rail and pipeline — who wins?
Despite the push by environmental organizations to move away from oil, the trend in America is heading straight in the opposite direction.
In North Dakota alone, a major hub of oil extraction in the U.S., more than 790,000 barrels of oil are produced every day. Rail transports 75 percent of that oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In 2005, the state produced just 90,000 barrels a day.
The trend is similar nationwide. The American Petroleum Institute reported this week that 8,793 oil wells were drilled in the U.S. in the second quarter of 2013, representing a 9 percent increase from the second quarter of 2012. The number of natural gas wells rose to 12,645.
Despite the tremendous growth in the oil drilling industry — most of which is taking off due to the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process which injects a combination of water, silica sand and chemicals deep into the earth to break up formations where oil is hidden — the oil industry isn’t satisfied.
Instead, the industry is blaming the government’s regulations as a point of hindrance to the growth potential they seek.
“Additional access to our vast energy resources and streamlined federal permitting would allow for more opportunities to produce U.S. energy while creating more American jobs and generating more revenue for our government,” the American Petroleum Institute’s statistics chief, Hazem Arafa, said in a statement this week.
The institute reported that more than 21 million acres off the shore of Texas will be up for auction in August, an area that could generate 890 million barrels of oil and nearly 4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The new frontier will take the U.S. one step closer to the International Energy Agency’s estimates that the nation will be energy independent — by way of oil — by 2030.
Supporters of the industry claim the jobs that will be brought to small communities make the push for fracking and Keystone XL worthwhile, while also promising a future of energy independence for the nation’s children.
Yet for environmental organizations and those living with the impact of the U.S. oil industry in their own backyard, it’s also about the future — one they hope will embrace technology that leads the nation away from the extraction of a fossil fuel that harms air and water quality.