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Local view: Mayor’s support ignored growing oil-spill danger

(Steve Lindstrom / For the News Tribune)

At a news conference at Superior City Hall, Duluth Mayor Don Ness joined Superior Mayor Bruce Hagen in publicly supporting Enbridge’s proposed expansion of its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which carries tar-sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior (“Twin Ports mayors back Enbridge pipelines,” March 19). The proposal would increase the pipeline’s capacity from 570,000 to 800,000 barrels per day. Ness said that he would prefer oil be transported by pipeline. He explained to me and others in attendance that he feels it is the safest option, including when compared to rail transport.

While this assertion is subject to some debate, it is more discouraging that Ness has bought into the false dichotomy that the only choice available is either oil transport by pipeline or oil transport by rail.

First, the belief that pipelines transport oil more safely than rail is not agreed upon by all experts. An analysis by Dr. Malcolm Cairns for the Canadian Transportation Research Forum showed that both modes of transport lose oil to spillage at similar rates. In fact, from 1990 to 1999, both methods had identical safety records: 36 barrels spilled per 1 billion barrel miles.

While rail spills may happen more frequently, pipeline spills can be larger and cause more damage. This is especially true of tar-sands oil, which is known to sink in water, making cleanup more difficult than conventional crude, which floats. Despite Enbridge’s insistence to the contrary, I and others — including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation and Minnesota Environmental Partnership — believe the oil flowing through the Alberta Clipper pipeline would sink and be more expensive to clean up if spilled.

Enbridge is well aware of this, having spent more than $1 billion for cleanup after 1 million gallons of tar-sands oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 (cleanup is still incomplete). The risk of a catastrophic tar-sands spill must be accounted for when comparing pipeline against rail, especially for the Alberta Clipper, which crosses the Mississippi River headwaters and runs adjacent to Lake Superior.

Safety concerns surrounding rail-transported oil are serious and need to be addressed. However, it is naive to believe that an expansion in pipeline capacity will be directly offset by reduced rail transport. As long as rail remains an economically feasible method of transport, oil companies will increase oil production beyond their pipeline capacity. If Ness is serious about tackling safety issues, he should support solutions that directly confront the problem, such as the recently introduced state legislation to address oil train safety or a push to repair and replace aging rail infrastructure. These solutions would create measurable improvements in rail safety without a need to increase pipeline expansion.

In his news conference, Mayor Ness sidestepped the climate implications of his support for the Alberta Clipper expansion. While he pointed out that pipelines were less energy-intensive than rail, he failed to acknowledge that tar sands reportedly can create 17 percent to 37 percent more carbon pollution per barrel than conventional crude. He also claimed decisions on how to transport oil are completely separate from the broader climate debate around oil and tar-sands extraction. In reality, production of the Alberta tar sands is limited by the amount of oil able to be exported, so any increase in pipeline capacity has a direct effect on tar-sands production.

The impact of oil transportation in our region is growing rapidly. About 15 percent of the oil transported in America now flows through Minnesota and into Superior. Yet, instead of being on the forefront of this growing issue, Ness chose not to engage in important components of the debate, offering limited and questionable explanations for his support of the Alberta Clipper expansion.

Duluth deserves better from its mayor.

Logan Bailey of Duluth is co-chairman of the Duluth chapter of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, or MPIRG.