Even as President Obama considers whether to approve the Keystone Pipeline, the alternative is already in place. Rail shipments of oil have increased an astonishing 8,358 percent since 2006. Of course they were starting from virtually zero, but that's still an impressive figure.
The graph charts both total U.S. crude oil production (in gray) and barrels shipped annually by rail (in green). Crude oil production has nearly doubled, from a declining 1.875 million barrels (scale at right) to 2.3 million in 2012 (2013 figures are not yet available). That's a result of the unlocking of shale oil, both in the Bakken and in several fields in Texas. But right along with it has gone the increase in oil traffic, since nearly all the Bakken oil is finding its way out of North Dakota by rail. Much of the Canadian crude that would be carried by the Keystone Pipeline is also coming down now by rail.
The increase in rail traffic will probably have an impact on the President's decision of whether or not to approve Keystone. The State Department report predicts that there will be six deaths per year from rail accidents shipping oil. That's not a huge amount but rail accidents tend to be spectacular - like the one in North Dakota last month that sent a column of flame 400 feet in the air and burned for several days. Will all this convince President Obama that the pipeline is a safer alternative? Or will environmentalists convince him to reject Keystone and then concentrate on ending rail shipments as well? Stay tuned.