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State Department Considers Oil by Rail in Keystone XL Decision

Energy
State Department Considers Oil by Rail in Keystone XL Decision

By Carol Linnitt

A decision on the proposed northern half of the Keystone XL pipeline—under review since 2008—hinges on a final environmental review by the U.S. State Department now taking into consideration the importance oil-by-rail transport might have on growth of Alberta's tar sands.

Could oil by rail realistically provide an alternative to the Keystone XL, aiding in the expansion of Canada's highly-polluting tar sands? Photo credit: Russ Allison Loar/ Creative Commons

U.S. officials are evaluating the impact Keystone XL will have on expansion of the tar sands and whether or not the pipeline will worsen climate change. According to a new report by Reuters the evaluation has created a balancing test, “zeroing in on the question of whether shipment by rail is a viable alternative to the controversial project.”

The test's crux: “if there is enough evidence that the oil sands region will quickly grow with our without the 1,200-mile line, that would undercut an argument from environmentalists that the pipeline would turbocharge expansion,” Reuters reports.

President Barack Obama's State Department is asking rail executives to report on logistics, market dynamics and what obstacles oil-by-rail alternatives face in delivering 830,000 barrels of Canadian oil to Cushing, OK—the "pipeline crossroads of the world"—where Keystone XL's northern half will link up with Keystone XL's southern half which is expected to be up and running by the end of October.

In other words, could rail realistically provide an alternative to the Keystone XL, aiding in the expansion of Canada's highly-polluting tar sands?

With numerous pipeline proposals facing opposition all across Canada and the U.S., oil-by-rail transport alternatives has picked up some slack. But the high costs associated with rail and the dangers associated with oil-by-rail transport suggest there are real limitations to a full-scale tar sands-by-rail revolution.

As Reuters reports, even rail operators admit tanker trains can supplement but not substitute the movement of crude by pipeline.

“We can move large volumes, but it will always be a niche service,” Gary Kubera, owner of Caneuxs, a company expected to move 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) by the end of 2014, told Reuters.

Stew Hanlon, president of Gibson Energy Inc., echoed the sentiment: “We remain very, very confident that rail is here to stay, not as a replacement for pipelines, but as a supplement of pipelines.”

Within Canada the oil-by-rail sector has grown tremendously, with five new loading terminals in western Canada and an estimated national transport capacity of 450,000 bpd by next year.

Life on the Rails?

Yet the rapid increase in rail transport of crude has led to a series of high-profile accidents in Canada, the most publicized being the Lac-Megantic disaster that saw 47 people incinerated in a small Quebec town after an un-manned tanker train derailed and crashed in a residential area. Fires from the accident burned for more than two days.

Just 10 days ago another tanker train carrying propane and oil derailed outside of Edmonton, Alberta causing an explosion and the evacuation of a small community.

In September a Canada Pacific Railway train carrying oil products derailed in Calgary leading to an evacuation. In July another Canada Pacific Railway train carrying petroleum products slumped over a river after flooding caused a rail bridge to partially collapse.

Yet another Canada Pacific Railway train full of tanker cars carrying oil derailed in Saskatchewan leaking 575 barrels of oil on May 5. The company also had a derailment in Ontario that saw 400 barrels of oil spill, as well as a derailment in March in Minnesota that spilled 24 barrels of oil after 14 cars went off the tracks.

In 2008 trains carried less than 20,000 barrels of oil per day. They now carry roughly 500,000 barrels of oil per day, as of the end of 2012.

According to the State Department, trains have a death rate three times higher than pipelines and have a fire and explosion rate nine times that of pipelines when carrying liquids.

Although groups are quick to point out pipeline disasters happen with less regularity they are often of high-consequence, such as the Enbridge Kalamazoo disaster in 2010 that leaked 20,082 barrels of oil into Michigan waterways. That spill has so far cost more than $1 billion, making it the most expensive onshore oil spill in U.S. history.

An un-manned tanker train derailed and crashed in a residential area in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, July 6. 47 people died and fires from the accident burned for more than two days.

Rail Costs Nearly Double Pipelines

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, high costs associated with oil-by-rail transport might pose the largest challenge to operators hoping to gain a larger share of the market. It costs roughly $10 to transport a barrel of oil in a pipeline while the same will cost about $17 via rail.

The industry also has a shortage of terminals capable of refining heavy crude, such as tar sands bitumen from Canada.

The high costs, lagging infrastructure, and dangers associated with rail make the industry an unlikely alternative to the Keystone XL, meaning tar sands transport is unlikely to meet industry expectations should the pipeline be turned down.

For oil producers operating in the tar sands, this inevitably means a shipping glut.

A Risky Investment

Increased oil production in the U.S. has also contributed to dwindling prices for Canadian producers. In June the research firm Wood Mackenzie warned that falling oil prices would lead to break-even points for Canadian energy companies developing one of the costliest forms of oil in the world.

The tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gasses and have some investors concerned that the globe’s urgent need to reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere might diminish the resource’s value.

Just last week a coalition of investors worth $3 trillion pressured 45 of the biggest oil and gas companies to deal with the real concern of "stranded assets," carbon pools that cannot be developed due to the threat of climate change.

A decision on Keystone XL's northern half is due in early 2014. President Obama—who approved the southern half via a March 2012 Executive Order—has indicated he will not approve the northern segment if found to significantly contribute to carbon pollution.

Given the access the pipeline will grant tar sands oil to overseas markets and the advantage pipelines have over rail, the Keystone XL will undoubtedly support tar sands production, promote continued tar sands investment and contribute to Canada’s already-significant greenhouse gas output.

So, if the decision really comes down to the pipeline's climate impact—and not something else—the choice is clear.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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