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Stephens: Can Environmentalists Think?

Think of the Keystone XL pipeline as an IQ test for greens.

As environmental disasters go, the explosion Saturday of a runaway train that destroyed much of the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic, about 20 miles from the Maine border, will probably go down the memory hole.

It lacks the correct moral and contains an inconvenient truth.

Not that the disaster lacks the usual ingredients of such a moral. The derailed 72-car train belonged to a subsidiary of Illinois-based multinational Rail World, whose self-declared aim is to "promote rail industry privatization." The train was carrying North Dakota shale oil (likely extracted by fracking) to the massive Irving Oil refinery in the port city of Saint John, to be shipped to the global market. At least five people were killed in the blast (a number that's likely to rise) and 1,000 people were forced to evacuate. Quebec's environment minister reports that some 100,000 liters (26,000 gallons) of crude have spilled into the Chaudière River, meaning it could reach Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River before too long.

Environmentalists should be howling. But this brings us to the inconvenient truth.

The reason oil is moved on trains from places like North Dakota and Alberta is because there aren't enough pipelines to carry it. The provincial governments of Alberta and New Brunswick are talking about building a pipeline to cover the 3,000-odd mile distance. But last month President Obama put the future of the Keystone XL pipeline again in doubt, telling a Georgetown University audience "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution."

Did the explosion at Lac-Mégantic not significantly exacerbate the problem of pollution, carbon or otherwise? Why do environmentalists routinely frame political choices in the language of moral absolutes—save/destroy the planet; "don't be mean, go green," and so on—rather than as complex questions involving trade-offs that are best dealt with pragmatically?

When it comes to the question of how best to transport oil, environmentalists tend to act like rabbis being asked for advice on how best to roast a pig: The thing should not be done in the first place. So opposition to Keystone XL becomes an assertion of virtue, indifferent to such lesser considerations as efficiency (or succulence).

But the pig will be roasted. The oil will be pumped. What happens then?

Like water, business has a way of tracing a course of least resistance. Pipelines are a hyper-regulated industry but rail transport isn't, so that's how we now move oil. As the Wall Street Journal's Tom Fowler reported in March, in 2008 the U.S. rail system moved 9,500 carloads of oil. In 2012, the figure surged to 233,811. During the same period, the total number of spills went from eight to 69. In March, a derailed train spilled 714 barrels of oil in western Minnesota.

Predictable, you would think. And ameliorable: Pipelines account for about half as much spillage as railways on a gallon-per-mile basis. Pipelines also tend not to go straight through exposed population centers like Lac-Mégantic. Nobody suggests that pipelines are perfectly reliable or safe, but what is? To think is to weigh alternatives. The habit of too many environmentalists is to evade them.

Perhaps this explains why the environmental movement has excelled ideologically and failed politically. As in fashion, green is a nice color that rarely wears well. So the whole world (minus your correspondent) agrees that climate change is an urgent threat to life as we know it, yet every U.N. megasummit to save the planet ends on a whimpering note. So all Americans are convinced that the threat of climate change is real, but President Obama had to use executive fiat to impose regulations on the coal industry that Congress would have rejected out of hand.

Perhaps this is also the reason climate science is so prone to scientific embarrassment. In 2001, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change insisted that "global average surface temperatures [will rise] at rates very likely without precedent during the last 10,000 years," and that they would rise sharply and continuously.

Yet in the 15 years since 1998, surface air temperatures have held flat, a fact now grudgingly conceded by the climate-science establishment, despite more than 100 billion tons of carbon dioxide having been pumped into the atmosphere over the same period. "Nature is far more imaginative than we are," Stamatios Krimigis, the eminent Johns Hopkins physicist, said last month when readings from the Voyager spacecraft failed to match expectations for what it would find at the far edge of the solar system. That kind of humility in the face of data is tough for today's environmentalists, who have staked so much on their own models, predictions and certitudes.

It's a pity. The world needs a credible environmental movement. Conservation matters. So does the quality of water and air. In China and Russia today environmentalists have mounted the most effective (and often the most courageous) critique of the toxic combination of coercive states and corrupt businesses. In the developed world, urban life has been massively improved thanks to a keener environmental awareness.

But all that depends on an environmental movement that isn't just another fire-and-brimstone religion, that wants to be part of a solution without castigating everyone else as part of the problem. In other words, a movement that is capable of reasoned thought.

The first application for a Keystone XL pipeline permit was filed with the U.S. State Department in 2008. Since then, the amount of oil being shipped on rails has risen 24-fold. Environmentalists enraged by this column should look at the photo of Lac-Mégantic that goes with it, and think it over.

Write to [email protected]

A version of this article appeared July 8, 2013, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Can Environmentalists Think?.

7/9/2013 9:51 AM
7/9/2013 10:15 AM



7/9/2013 10:20 AM
Posted by occsid on 7/9/2013 10:15:00 AM (view original):
This is what you want us to go back to with your idiotic no-fossil fuels energy policies.
7/9/2013 11:22 AM

But John, the crazy enviros don't want that either.  They want us to go back to the above pic.
7/10/2013 4:09 PM
7/25/2013 9:15 AM
Hey, occsid, why do you keep embarrassing yourself by falling for BS? As I know you'll have no idea what I'm talking about, do a little research as to where the above pic was taken. Hint: far south of the North Pole.
7/26/2013 10:37 PM
**** off *******! No one gives a **** about what you have to say.
7/26/2013 11:14 PM
Um, Fox News is reporting it Jclark.  The only **** being spewed here is from you which is totally amazing considering how far you head is lodged up your ***. 

July 22, 2013: A picture of a buoy anchored near a remote webcam at the North Pole shows a meltwater lake surrounding the camera. (North Pole Environmental Observatory)

Instead of snow and ice whirling on the wind, a foot-deep aquamarine lake now sloshes around a webcam stationed at the North Pole. 

The meltwater lake started forming July 13, following two weeks of warm weather in the high Arctic. In early July, temperatures were 2 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average over much of the Arctic Ocean, according to the National Snow & Ice Data Center.

Meltwater ponds sprout more easily on young, thin ice, which now accounts for more than half of the Arctic's sea ice. The ponds link up across the smooth surface of the ice, creating a network that traps heat from the sun. Thick and wrinkly multi-year ice, which has survived more than one freeze-thaw season, is less likely sport a polka-dot network of ponds because of its rough, uneven surface.

July is the melting month in the Arctic, when sea ice shrinks fastest. An Arctic cyclone, which can rival a hurricane in strength, is forecast for this week, which will further fracture the ice and churn up warm ocean water, hastening the summer melt. The Arctic hit a record low summer ice melt last year on Sept. 16, 2012, the smallest recorded since satellites began tracking the Arctic ice in the 1970s.

Read more:

7/28/2013 9:36 PM

Plus Ça Change Climatique

  • "The world's average temperature is rising at a rate of 1½ degrees in 100 years, says Dr. Gilbert Plass of Johns Hopkins University, in part because of increased industrial activity. Plass, a physicist, told the American Geophysical Union that industrial activity annually adds about six billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and he added: 'The carbon dioxide in the air acts in the same manner as the glass in a greenhouse. . . .' "--Associated Press, May 5, 1953
  • "With more confidence than ever before, a prominent scientific body put the blame for global climate change squarely at the feet of humanity's insatiable appetite for fossil fuels, which release heat-trapping gases when burned. 'There is only one thing that is going straight up . . . that is the greenhouse gases that we are just pumping at an exponential rate,' Gerald North, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University who chaired the committee responsible for the statement, told NBC News. The statement was released Monday by the American Geophysical Union.", Aug. 5, 2013
8/6/2013 4:10 PM

8/7/2013 11:19 AM
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