Keystone may be Railroaded

Frank Friday
It’s been nearly six years now that President Obama has delayed start of the massive Keystone XL pipeline designed to bring the oil riches of western Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries. He may well never approve it; that’s certainly what the environmentalists demand.  But much like the marvel of fracking and horizontal drilling, yet another hydrocarbon technology has entered the scene, possibly mooting the whole debate while helping our economy in the process.

Readers of AT have long known how crony-capitalist Warren Buffett has been making out like a bandit with his railroad, BNSF, and his tank car company, Union, to haul a lot of the oil stranded without the pipeline. Up until now, this has been an expensive proposition, as rail is generally not competitive with pipelines for big volume moves.

However, railcar engineers have recently built special heater-coil cars for the super-sticky tar oil – bitumen, actually -- that comes out of Canada. These cars can be filled 100% with the raw bitumen, not diluted with costly thinning chemicals called “diluents”, otherwise needed for pipelines or normal tank cars to move the heavy, sludge-like product. Canadian tar oil with diluents is also expensive and bothersome to extract once it reaches the refinery.  By delivering the bitumen in its pure state, the savings are so large for the refiners that it justifies the extra cost of rail shipment; and obviates the need for much of the Keystone XL project.

Bitumen moved by rail is also much safer than other forms of crude oil. The light, sweet stuff from the Bakken fields may catch on fire in a derailment, but the Canadian product has so little in the way of volatile gases that a mere tank rupture is unlikely to be major trouble.

This is great news for the American economy. Millions of barrels a day more of North American crude oil can start flowing in the next few years, wiping out our trade deficits and boosting our industry. It’s enough to make a grown liberal weep.

As for Warren Buffett -- you might think with the gusher of oil/rail money coming his way, he could lighten up, especially on us taxpayers, but that’s not how he became the Oracle of Omaha. A few years ago his rail line running past Devil’s Lake, ND was being inundated by rising water levels. He told Amtrak, which runs one lonely, money-losing train a day there, they would have to pay to raise the tracks, or he would abandon the line. Totally falling for the bluff, Amtrak and the state of North Dakota agreed to pick up 2/3 of the $100 million tab including federal grant money. Now Amtrak can continue running its one money-losing train, and Warren can run dozens more oil specials straight to the bank.

Nineteenth-century America prospered mightily because of its railroads, and very few of the owners deserved to be called “robber barons”. In the 21st Century, it looks like our railroads will once again lead us to prosperity, and we’re just stuck for a while with one very clever robber baron.

Frank Friday is an attorney in Louisville, KY.

It’s been nearly six years now that President Obama has delayed start of the massive Keystone XL pipeline designed to bring the oil riches of western Canada’s tar sands to Texas refineries. He may well never approve it; that’s certainly what the environmentalists demand.  But much like the marvel of fracking and horizontal drilling, yet another hydrocarbon technology has entered the scene, possibly mooting the whole debate while helping our economy in the process.

Readers of AT have long known how crony-capitalist Warren Buffett has been making out like a bandit with his railroad, BNSF, and his tank car company, Union, to haul a lot of the oil stranded without the pipeline. Up until now, this has been an expensive proposition, as rail is generally not competitive with pipelines for big volume moves.

However, railcar engineers have recently built special heater-coil cars for the super-sticky tar oil – bitumen, actually -- that comes out of Canada. These cars can be filled 100% with the raw bitumen, not diluted with costly thinning chemicals called “diluents”, otherwise needed for pipelines or normal tank cars to move the heavy, sludge-like product. Canadian tar oil with diluents is also expensive and bothersome to extract once it reaches the refinery.  By delivering the bitumen in its pure state, the savings are so large for the refiners that it justifies the extra cost of rail shipment; and obviates the need for much of the Keystone XL project.

Bitumen moved by rail is also much safer than other forms of crude oil. The light, sweet stuff from the Bakken fields may catch on fire in a derailment, but the Canadian product has so little in the way of volatile gases that a mere tank rupture is unlikely to be major trouble.

This is great news for the American economy. Millions of barrels a day more of North American crude oil can start flowing in the next few years, wiping out our trade deficits and boosting our industry. It’s enough to make a grown liberal weep.

As for Warren Buffett -- you might think with the gusher of oil/rail money coming his way, he could lighten up, especially on us taxpayers, but that’s not how he became the Oracle of Omaha. A few years ago his rail line running past Devil’s Lake, ND was being inundated by rising water levels. He told Amtrak, which runs one lonely, money-losing train a day there, they would have to pay to raise the tracks, or he would abandon the line. Totally falling for the bluff, Amtrak and the state of North Dakota agreed to pick up 2/3 of the $100 million tab including federal grant money. Now Amtrak can continue running its one money-losing train, and Warren can run dozens more oil specials straight to the bank.

Nineteenth-century America prospered mightily because of its railroads, and very few of the owners deserved to be called “robber barons”. In the 21st Century, it looks like our railroads will once again lead us to prosperity, and we’re just stuck for a while with one very clever robber baron.

Frank Friday is an attorney in Louisville, KY.