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From the Editor

A Deadly Business

The ploy was so shameless and obvious that it gave concern-trolling a bad name. In January, US and Canadian accident investigators, in a rare joint statement, warned their governments that an oil-by-rail accident could lead to “major loss of life.” The petroleum industry and its allies were quick to use the warning as an argument for building the Keystone XL pipeline and, in general, for building more oil infrastructure. “Clearly because this project [Keystone XL] has been held up, that is creating more [oil] traffic by rail,” Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican, said. “Those companies are being forced to deliver their product by rail because they don’t have the pipelines.” A former petroleum exec penned an op-ed with the headline, “For safety’s sake, build the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Never mind that rail shipments of oil – much of which comes from the fracking fields of North Dakota – would continue even with the pipeline. Never mind that the railroad industry has worked behind the scenes to prevent public disclosure of the shipment of hazardous materials, the re-routing of dangerous cargo around major cities, and safety upgrades to oil tank cars. The oil industry’s disingenuousness was just slick enough to slide into the slipstream of public discourse.

More to the point: There already has been major loss of life from oil-by-rail. Last July, 47 people in the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic died when an oil train derailed and exploded. As Adam Federman writes in our cover story, “At one point, the fire was pulling in so much oxygen that nearby trees were whipping about as if in a tropical storm.” The heat was so intense that five people’s bodies were never recovered; it was as if they had been cremated alive.

The horrific disaster in Quebec – since followed by oil-train accidents in Alabama, North Dakota, and most recently in Lynchburg, Virginia – is yet another reminder of the inherent dangers of our energy addiction. We might be able to mitigate these dangers, but there’s no way to avoid them. Pipelines burst and send crude spewing into wetlands and rivers. Oil wells rupture. Trains occasionally derail and – if they’re carrying the especially volatile crude from the Bakken – sometimes catch fire. And each gallon of oil we consume fans the flames of global warming that, as the US government confirmed in its recent National Climate Assessment, are already upon us.

Yes, any form of energy generation comes with some risks. Wind turbines contribute to bird deaths and mining silicon to make solar panels is a nasty business. But there’s really no comparison. I’ve never heard of a solar farm exploding, or a wind farm having a spill.

Pipelines versus oil trains? It’s a false choice – like asking if you’d rather kill yourself with a noose or a pistol. The real decision, the one that we’ve dodged for decades, is whether to make a complete transition to a renewable energy system or continue with the slow-motion suicide of business as usual.

Hopefully we’ll make the right choice and turn our backs on fossil fuels before too many more people get hurt.

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