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The Manhattan Institute is a conservative, somewhat libertarian think tank here in New York, probably best known for pushing the "broken windows policing," that has defined law enforcement in the city since the Giuliani era. They are generally free marketers and pro-law enforcement conservatives. They very often, like the contributors to Reason magazine or CATO classic, come up with some novel ideas and are worth checking in with every now and then, even by lefties.
In Slate today, one of their Senior Fellows, Robert Bryce, takes a swipe at the environmentalists campaigning against the Keystone Pipeline. The premise of the argument is that environmentalists are fools to think that stopping Keystone is going to keep all of those atmosphere dirtying fossil fuels from getting to the users who need them. Take away Keystone, he says, and the oil will be moved to port by rail. You can't stop the markets! Indeed, Bryce points out, new rail capacity is already being added, without protest, to transport the oil while the industry waits for Keystone to be built. The demand for the oil is there now and it's being met now.
Also, says Bryce, the rail people have competitive advantages:
"Rusty Braziel, RBN’s president, told me that the surge in moving oil by rail will continue because railroads give oil producers advantages that aren’t available when shipping their oil by pipeline. The most important one, says Braziel, is “optionality.” With a pipeline, producers can ship their oil only from Point A to Point B. By putting oil on rail cars, if prices at Point B are too low, the producer can ship to other buyers by simply rerouting the train. Furthermore, says Braziel, with pipelines, oil producers often have to make a commitment to ship their product on a given pipe for 10 or even 20 years. “The railroads will build a terminal for an 18- to 36-month commitment,” says Braziel. “The pipeline guys have got to be scared.”"
This is not an answer that's going to make Bill McKibben happy. I understand that he wants Keystone to be the line in the sand on fossil fuels. This might be the wrong front for that fight. Or maybe it is the right one. McKibben knows more about this than I do.
But I would argue this: Fossil fuel reliance is not the only reason to oppose Keystone. Groundwater contamination from pipeline spills is a big issue. (*)Rail seems safer in that regard.(*) Eminent domain is a big issue. People are having their land taken from them for Keystone. Most rail infrastructure has already been built. Along those lines, Keystone is supposed to be a job creator. Maybe it will be and maybe it won't. But the rail industry already exists. It can ramp up hiring now in response to increased demand. Heck, Warren Buffett bought a railroad last year.
Of course The Manhattan Institute isn't against the Keystone Pipeline, but their argument really means that the Pipeline is unnecessary. If the pipeline is stopped, the oil will just move by rail.
Fine. Let it.
(*) I should not have written this line. Even when I first put it in, I knew I was on shaky ground and writing based on hunch. In the comments below, a better informed poster (Verified Atheist) suggests that train derailments that lead to chemical spills occur more frequently than my flip comments suggests.