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Editorial: Condition, stabilization debate? Try pipelines

BY TOM DENNIS

Forum News Service

In the debate about the safety of shipping Bakken oil, there are trade-offs at every turn.

That’s the lesson of the conditioning vs. stabilization debate, the pipeline vs. railroad debate and every other debate that has surfaced around the issue.

And that means there’s no risk-free way out. Every option has its costs and benefits; every choice creates winners and losers.

So, the best our society can do is to strike the most favorable balances — the ones with the highest benefits and lowest costs. But make no mistake: none of those costs will be anything close to zero, and that’s true in dollar, environmental AND human safety terms. Pipelines create risks; oil trains create risks.

Even leaving the oil in the ground creates risks, especially if we then rely on supertankers to bring our oil from dictatorial countries overseas.

This knowledge of inevitable trade-offs and inescapable risks can be sobering. But it’s also the start of wisdom, because it generates the understanding that while there may be no perfect solutions, some answers are better than others.

And it’s those “better” or at least “good” ideas that our society should pursue.

As John Harju of the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, N.D. explains, at least one myth should be put to rest, and that’s the claim that stabilization makes Texas oil much safer than North Dakota oil to ship by train.

True, some oil in Texas is stabilized, Harju notes. But not all of it; and even at those shipping points where stabilization happens, safety isn’t the driving force.

Instead, money is. At those points, there are markets for the volatile gases that stabilization boils off — and if there weren’t, the oil would be shipped raw.

In North Dakota, those markets don’t exist. That leaves the state with a host of poor options, where oil stabilization is concerned:

Boil off the gases, thus creating high volumes of even more volatile chemicals that would have to be stored or shipped.

Flare or vent the gases, thus wasting money and energy and polluting the air.

Or condition rather than stabilize the oil.

Of course, there’s also this possibility: Build pipelines, and make that the “go-to” method for shipping oil. That’s not a risk-free option by any means. But given the alternatives, it sure seems like the place where we’ll get the best return on our infrastructure dollar.

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