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by A. Maureen Rouhi
July 15, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 28

An out-of-control locomotive pulling 72 cars full of crude oil burst into flames when it derailed as it approached the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6. The train was carrying crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick. News accounts say that the conflagration killed 20 people and left the town looking like a war zone; 30 people are still missing. The deadly accident also spilled about 26,000 gal of crude oil.

The deaths and environmental damage are unintended consequences of the oil boom in the U.S. and Canada. More crude oil than ever before needs to go over land in North America—through pipelines, trucks, or trains. All modes have problems. But because pipeline transport is probably the most efficient, the accident is fueling even more debate over the Keystone XL oil pipeline. The 1,200-mile-long project will bring heavy crude oil from tar sand production sites in Canada to U.S. refineries. U.S. approval is still pending.

After pipelines, trains are the next choice for land transport of crude oil. According to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. shipments by rail rose “from 9,500 carloads in 2008, the year widely seen as the beginning of the current oil boom, to 233,811 carloads in 2012. … A carload is typically about 740 barrels. About 16.6 million barrels of Canadian crude were shipped to the U.S. in 2012. … But industry estimates say that could grow to as much as 73 million barrels in 2013 and nearly 110 million barrels by 2014” (July 8, page A1).

Opponents of the pipeline say it will ruin the environment and harm public health. Supporters counter that the pipeline will bring economic benefits, especially jobs, and energy independence. In a major policy speech on climate change last month, President Barack Obama stressed that U.S. approval of the pipeline will be determined by its net effect on climate (C&EN, July 1, page 5).

The economic climate likely favors the pipeline’s approval. The energy industry will continue to develop North American oil trapped in sand and shale and will find ways to transport it, with or without a pipeline. The Lac-Mégantic tragedy makes the pipeline option look good. And it wouldn’t be so bad if President Obama were really serious about requiring a zero effect on climate, as well as the most stringent standards for safety and environmental impact.

Zero climate effect, foolproof safety, and zero environmental impact—even if possible to achieve—cost a lot of money, however. The business interests invested in the project likely cannot put up all the money for the perfect pipeline without the help of governments and consumers of the pipeline’s products.

How to balance the risks and benefits of environmentally impactful activities must be everyone’s business. Reputable companies try to do the right thing, as do governments. But companies also have to consider their financial health, and governments are cash-strapped. Meanwhile, consumers demand the lowest prices on everything, and investors demand the highest returns.

Two articles in this issue indicate the increasing willingness of corporations to adopt sustainable business practices. The review of the book “Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability,” on page 30, notes that food companies promote sustainability by providing technical assistance to farmers to help them improve energy efficiency and reduce waste. They do so self-servingly of course, to ensure the integrity of their supply chains and increase their competitive advantage. But what do we expect? These are businesses with shareholders that demand high returns on investments all the time.

“Valuing Bioplastics,” on page 18, gives examples of businesses trying to do the right thing by using biobased, renewable plastics in their products. Coca-Cola, Stonyfield Farm, and Ford are using polymers made from renewable feedstocks as a means to achieve sustainability. Consumers, however, don’t seem to care enough to pay for the extra cost of sustainable materials.

As a society, we are fixated on the short term. Until we affirm that environmentalism, sustainability, and the preservation of Earth for future generations are worth striving for—and paying for now—we will continue to flail helplessly from one disaster to another.



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