B.C. pipeline adds tar to state's fossil fuel jitters

Is it just us, or does it really feel as if every barrel of oil and ton of coal from the Great Plains and northward is headed our way?

Most of the fossil fuel angst in the Puget Sound region this year has focused on a potential onslaught of mile-long coal trains bisecting our communities. They’d be coming from the Columbia River and heading toward an immense new shipping terminal proposed for Cherry Point, near the Canadian border.

Now think oil. Washington is facing a surge of “rolling pipelines” – trains of tanker cars – carrying petroleum to Washington refineries and ports, including Tacoma.

Broaden the perspective a little. A Houston-based pipeline company, Kinder Morgan, recently filed a formal application with the Canadian government to triple the capacity of its existing Trans Mountain Pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, B.C.

This long-planned project hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention in Washington or the rest of the United States. Some U.S. environmentalists have obsessed about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline – which would carry Alberta’s tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast – while hardly seeming to notice what Kinder Morgan has been up to.

Yet the expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline could carry roughly as much Alberta crude to international markets as the Keystone XL project. The petroleum would first be loaded on tankers in Vancouver and shipped through the sensitive waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The number of tankers in the Strait could increase more than sixfold, from five to 34 a month.

Like the rapid rise of oil-hauling trains, the Trans Mountain Pipeline doesn’t fit the anti-Keystone narrative. Opponents of that southbound line are still arguing that killing the project would keep Alberta’s tar sands bottled up. The reality is that the tar sands will reach the market regardless, whether by rail, highway, Canadian pipelines or ships.

We hope somebody is weighing the risks of Keystone XL against the risks – and carbon footprint – of rail and truck shipment.

Realism should also drive the argument against the coal trains. It’s not helpful to build that argument chiefly on global warming.

The governors of Montana and North Dakota – where much of the coal would be coming from – are probably right in arguing that trying to stop the coal trains just because they’re coal trains would violate the Constitution’s guarantee of free interstate commerce. But Washington can demand that the shipments not paralyze or pollute cities up and down the urban Puget Sound corridor.

Pragmatic tactics, not ideology, are most likely to soften the local impacts of the U.S. and Canadian fossil fuel boom.