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Is The Fiery Quebec Train Crash Another Setback For Keystone?

It was overshadowed by the fatal plane crash in San Francisco, but don't be surprised if the horrific runaway train accident in eastern Quebec, where oil tanker cars derailed and exploded, killing at least five and wiping out the downtown district of the small town of Lac-Megantic, has the far greater ramifications. That's because just about everything these days that involves the transport of North American oil factors into the high-stakes debate over the Keystone XL pipeline.

It's not hard to imagine how the Keystone boosters will try to use the crash to their advantage: It will be taken as evidence of the downsides of transporting oil by rail rather than by pipeline. The weekend news coverage already hinted at this tack. The Associated Press reported: "Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he was heading to the town Sunday. Because of limited pipeline capacity in North Dakota's Bakken region and in Canada, oil producers are using railroads to transport much of the oil to refineries on the East, Gulf and West coasts, as well as inland. Harper has called railroad transit 'far more environmentally challenging' while trying to persuade the Obama administration to approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast."

But of course there's an entirely different way of looking at it. The environmentalist opponents of Keystone argue that the pipeline should be blocked so that high-emissions tar sands oil stays in the ground in Alberta rather than being burned and thereby exacerbating climate change. The pipeline's boosters have countered that the tar sands will be developed and exported regardless of whether the pipeline is built or not—whether by pipelines crossing British Columbia for export to oil-hungry China, or by rail to the Atlantic or Gulf Coast. That was the gist of the State Department assessment that found that Keystone would not significantly increase emissions compared with other routes of export.

That basic claim—that the tar sands will make it out no matter what—has taken some hits of late, though. An in-depth Reuters analysis in April challenged the State Department assessment, raising serious questions about the economic feasibility of transporting large quantities of tar sands oil by rail. Then came word last month that the provincial government of British Columbia had, on environmental grounds, rejected a proposed pipeline to carry tar sands oil to ports for export to China.

And now comes the dreadful spectacle in Quebec, which puts another damper in the notion that it's going to be a breeze to export vast quantities of tar sands by rail. It's increasingly becoming clear that the reasons that the Canadians are pushing so hard for Keystone is because they, well, really need Keystone.

The disaster may even echo in another arena of the fossil-fuel wars: coal. There's a long-running battle underway in the Pacific Northwest over plans to move more coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana via rail (Warren Buffett's Burlington Northern) to new export terminals in Oregon and Washington. The opponents' main argument is that we should not be abetting China's rise in carbon emissions by giving them a bottomless new supply of coal, but they've also raised concerns about the environmental impact of the trains themselves, starting with the coal dust they cast off along the route. Coal's not combustible like oil, but that won't keep opponents from using images of the ugly Quebec derailment to their benefit.

Put simply: What happens in Lac-Megantic doesn't stay in Lac-Megantic.

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlecMacGillis