Warren Buffett And The Keystone Pipeline: Cause And Effect

  on March 07 2014 10:44 AM
Keystone Pipeline
Keystone pipeline Reuters

If a Mad magazine existed for economists (that is, we who labor in what’s known as the "dismal science"), it would be Warren Buffett’s annual March letter to his Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) shareholders.  Written in a breezy, sometimes cheeky tone, it’s a harbinger of spring, like sighting the first robin of the year.  But this year’s letter is a bit different -- still breezy and cheeky -- but omits a crucial fact, one that’s related to the Keystone Pipeline controversy.

If you go to page 11, you’ll see Buffett’s discussion of the success of Berkshire’s railway, BNSF.  What Buffett doesn’t mention is that this success is directly related to the lack of the Keystone Pipeline.  Instead of shipping Canadian/North Dakotan oil via a pipeline, it’s coming south via rail tanker cars.  And many of those rail lines and tankers belong to BNSF. Here in Delaware, I’ve seen the tankers up close and personal.  They snake in very long lines (too many to count) as they make their way to an oil refinery south of Wilmington.

Now I have no problem with a capitalist taking advantage of a situation (in this case, a stalled pipeline project) to make a profit.  But let’s remember the reason given by President Barack Obama’s administration and its friends for holding up the Keystone project:  the environment.

Without the Keystone Pipeline, we’re enduring events such as last July’s tank car explosion that killed 47 people and leveled a small town in Quebec.  And the derailment on Dec. 30 in North Dakota that spilled 475,000 gallons of oil. Using U.S. federal government data, the McClatchy news service estimates that in 2013 more oil was spilled than in the previous four decades combined.

Last month, another derailment dumped 4,000 gallons of oil in a town about 20 miles from Pittsburgh.  (Near my grandparents’ hometown, incidentally.) Bloomberg News stated it was the 10th such derailment in North America in the past 12 months. Another factor in these crashes/derailments is that much of the crude oil involved is of a type (Bakken) that ignites at a lower temperature than other types, due to the higher levels of natural gas in Bakken oil. Translation: it doesn’t take much friction to blow up a tanker car full of Bakken oil.

In spite of all these events and factors, the environmentalists keep insisting the Keystone Pipeline is too dangerous.  Oh yeah. I’m not an engineer, but plain common sense indicates it would be safer to ship Bakken oil through a smooth pipeline instead of by rail.  As we’ve seen, rail shipments involve possible derailments, accidents and opportunities for ignition-causing friction.

Common sense also tells us that it would be cheaper to pump the oil through a pipeline instead of loading it into thousands of rail tanker cars, one-by-one, with a diesel-burning locomotive at the front of the line.  The end result is lower costs at the gas pump.

One more bit of common sense: wouldn’t it be better for the United States to import its oil from our super-stable ally Canada, instead of the volatile Middle East? Just ask someone who was driving a car in the 1970s.  They’ll tell you about how the Middle East’s 1973 and 1979 embargoes against exporting oil to the U.S. resulted in long lines at the gas pump, rules about filling up your tank based upon whether your license plate ended in an even or odd number, etc.  Plus, the price of anything made of plastic (a petroleum-based product) shot up -- a significant contributing factor to the inflationary problems of that decade.

Furthermore, a 2013 Pew survey report indicates that a large majority of Americans agree with these common sense ideas.  The survey found that 65 percent of Americans support building the Keystone pipeline.  That 65 percent includes 51 percent of Democrats, a slim majority, but significant considering the Democrat party has a powerful environmentalist faction.

The Pew report also revealed that in the six states where the pipeline would be located, and, thus, where the people would experience the greatest environmental impact (Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) 69 percent of them support its construction while 28 percent oppose.

Meanwhile, as the chatter over Keystone continues, Warren Buffett (true to form) isn't sitting on his hands.  Anticipating the wrath of Capitol Hill and the White House, he announced on Feb. 20 that BNSF will purchase 5,000 upgraded, safer (and more expensive) tanker cars.

No doubt BNSF will choose its tanker vendor carefully and with all due diligence; however, it’s worth knowing that Buffett’s corporate empire includes the Union Tank Car Company which makes (surprise!) tanker cars. And who will pay for those improved tankers?  We will, at the gas pump.  Did you think Buffett would buy those cars himself because he loves protecting little bunny rabbits?  Oh yeah.

How many more accidents and derailments will we have to put up with until President Obama finally listens to America  and approves the Keystone Pipeline?  Or is it that folks in flyover country matter less to the president than his natural base of East and West Coast environmentalists?

America is waiting, Mr. President.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional Republican staff member at the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee.

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