Berkshire Hathaway’s Pipeline Payday
Is Warren Buffett cashing in on Biden's Keystone cancellation? Fact-checkers say no, but the truth is not so simple.
In the last days of January, after freshly sworn-in President Joe Biden promptly took his executive axe to the Keystone XL pipeline, an explainer began to circulate on Facebook. Over a nondescript image of a pipeline segment cresting a vaguely Midwestern-looking hill, the post claimed:
The Keystone pipeline. Cancelled by Biden on first day. Warren Buffet [sic] owns the railroad that is now transporting all that oil. Warren Buffet donated 58 million to Biden campaign. Warren Buffet would lose billions in transport fees if the pipeline is completed. See how politics works? It is not an environmental issue, it is a money issue…
It paints a nice picture. The pieces all fall into place, and they line up pretty well with our prior knowledge of the players involved. They don’t call him Quid Pro Joe for nothing, right? And it would hardly be the first time Berkshire Hathaway used political influence to kill a pipeline project, as Arthur Bloom’s work on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline here at TACshows. Thankfully, the arbiters of truth and democracy come quickly to dispel our illusions. Fact checks from Politifact, Reuters, and the Associated Press all rate the post false, pointing to a few key pieces of evidence.
The first is fairly important: Warren Buffett didn’t donate $58 million to Joe Biden’s campaign. That’s not really a surprise; $58 million is a hefty chunk of change, even as a hypothetical percentage of Biden’s $1.69 billion campaign haul—the largest in American history. Buffett is well known for cutting tiny checks, even to the candidates he really loves. Hillary Clinton, who’s essentially what you would get if you plugged Warren Buffett’s fantasies into the computer from Weird Science, pulled a measly $25,000 from the Oracle of Omaha. Joe Biden, whose off days can make even Hillary seem charismatic, could hardly have expected to multiply that number by a factor of 2,320.
In fact, Buffett didn’t even make a small donation to Biden’s 2020 campaign, nor endorse the candidate publicly, according to his assistant Debbie Bosanek, as quoted in the fact checks. This despite Buffett’s reported private affinity for the new president, and Biden’s previous number-two role in Buffett’s beloved Obama administration. Some have suggested that the mega-investor’s uncharacteristic silence this cycle—he went so far as to speak onstage at a Clinton rally last time around—was due to a fear of alienating pro-Trump consumers in an already rocky, mid-pandemic moment for Berkshire Hathaway. Whether or not that explains it, it’s safe to say that Buffett’s campaign-season stinginess is not indicative of any disfavor with President Biden.
Nonetheless, the stinginess is real, and strikes a pretty damning blow to the viral claim. And the specific assertion was hardly credible to start with. If you wanted to pay off a politician in exchange for killing a project you don’t like, wouldn’t you be a little less obvious about it? But the atmosphere of dirty power at the top of our political-economic system is getting harder to deny with each passing day. We live under a kind of loose, elusive oligarchy—a nebulous network of interdependent power-brokers in government and business—that can rarely be tied down to hard money. You scratch Warren Buffett’s back because he’s Warren Buffett, not because he bought you six and a half minutes of television ad time.
Even if we allow a bit of flexibility on the hard claims, though, the fact-checkers take issue with the general principle. Warren Buffett has publicly voiced his support for the Keystone XL project on multiple occasions dating back to 2013. Former Omaha World-Herald staff writer Steve Jordon, who wrote a weekly column on Buffett from 2008 to 2018 (not much happens in Omaha) observed in 2014 that “[Buffet’s] pro-pipeline stance has confounded opponents who think it’s out of line with his support of former President Barack Obama, who blocked the project while in office, and his philanthropic support of humanitarian works.”
But the particular support for Keystone XL should confound observers; the daylight between Warren Buffett and Barack Obama is typically invisible to the naked eye. A marked disagreement on such a high-profile issue should warrant a second look. Scattered, throwaway comments of noncommittal support in CNBC etc. interviews through the years have been taken without question as proof positive of Buffett’s sincere commitment to the pipeline project. Little consideration has apparently been given to the fact that Warren Buffett is a very smart man, and may give some thought to the things he says on national TV.
In fact, Buffett has established a bit of a pattern in these affairs. In 2011, President Barack Obama proposed the Buffett Rule (named for super-fan and super-donor Warren), a 30 percent minimum tax rate for Americans with annual income over one million dollars. Buffett himself had called for a higher tax rate on the super-rich in a 2011 op-ed for the New York Times. The Obama White House was happy to play along, and a Democratic Senate followed suit with the Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012. A legislative filibuster rendered the bill dead on arrival. Of course, Buffett can hardly have been worried that he’d ever get the tax hike he asked for; but even if it had come, as Arthur Laffer pointed out at the time, the “effective tax rate on his true income would hardly budge” given that “Buffett shields almost the entirety of his true income from federal income taxation, and he makes clear his belief that he can do more good with his wealth than Uncle Sam.” It’s easy to beg for higher taxes when you know you won’t have to pay up, and it’s great PR to boot. The same can be said of an oil pipeline that would chip away at your bottom line.
But that brings us to the final objection. Would the Keystone XL pipeline really chip away at Berkshire Hathaway’s bottom line to begin with? The fact-checkers, again, say no. To defend the claim, they cite a number out of context: Only about 3 percent of Canada’s exported crude oil is transported by rail (4 percent goes by truck, and a whopping 93 percent by pipeline). From this small number, combined with Buffett’s public dismissiveness of Keystone XL as a competitor to his railroad, the conclusion is drawn that Berkshire Hathaway—a multinational holding company that ranks within the top-10 largest corporations worldwide by virtually any standard—has no real skin in the game here.
It’s a deceptively small number for a lucrative enterprise that no sensible investor would ever want to lose. After all, 3 percent of the petroleum exporting capacity of the fourth-largest crude oil producer on the planet isn’t exactly a mom-and-pop operation. That number works out to well over 41 million barrels of crude in 2019 (the last year for which the Canadian government has released data) alone. Taking into account the $10-15 per barrel cost of transporting by rail, Berkshire Hathaway’s oil-transport endeavor is somewhere around a half-billion dollar industry. Percentages are tricky. Warren Buffett’s $85-billion net worth is a mere one fortieth (give or take) of 1 percent of all the wealth in the world. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take his place, given the chance.
Even admitting this high valuation at the present moment, however, many will claim that transport by rail is, if not already a thing of the past, at least on its way out the door. Pipelines are the future. With the Keystone XL project—an expansion of an existing pipeline system—decisively nixed by the president, oil will just travel through the pipelines we already have. But this ignores an important, obvious question: Why was the Keystone XL project initiated in the first place? It wasn’t just for fun.
The Keystone XL pipeline project came into being because existing pipelines could not handle surging oil exports. Insufficient transport capacity led to an exporting bottleneck, which in turn led to more crude being delivered from the U.S. to Canada on freight trains, which are both more expensive and significantly more dangerous—prone to accidents harming both humans and the environment—than their pipeline alternative. In 2008, 9,344 train cars full of crude oil arrived in the United States; by 2014 that number had risen to 540,383. (A single car holds, on average, about 650 barrels.) Volume has fluctuated significantly since that 2014 peak, but it is safe to say that this is hardly a dying industry. The facts are clear, if inconvenient: In the absence of expanded pipeline infrastructure, oil does travel by rail. To say otherwise requires the memory-holing of years of contentious, public debate over the relative risks of one versus the other. A single, typical headline from the Washington Post in October of 2018: “As Canadian pipeline plans falter, more oil is moving by rail—prompting familiar fears.”
So, the claim that oil transportation by rail is virtually irrelevant holds very little water. Still, what is Berkshire Hathaway’s real involvement here? Even if, contra the fact-checkers, the freight train business is booming, does Warren Buffett care? John Mitchell, whose incompetence (coupled with Ben Bradlee’s malice) toppled the greatest president this nation has ever seen, at least had the right idea here: watch what they do, not what they say. Yes, Warren Buffett has said—especially while Barack Obama, who was never going to allow the project to go forward, occupied the Oval Office—that Keystone XL might be a nice idea. But the famously cautious investor’s oil-transportation business has been carried out with very little apparent doubt. That is, corporate decision-makers seem reasonably confident that they can count on at least 40 million barrels riding their rails each year, and possibly much more.
In late 2009 (incidentally, the year Obama took office) Berkshire Hathaway took full ownership of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway Company in a $44-billion deal. The acquisition itself can’t have had anything to do with Keystone—oil is an even smaller part of the rail business than vice versa—but at the same time it can hardly be unimportant to the current discussion that Berkshire Hathaway owns the single largest freight railroad network on the continent. In another point for the Facebook memers and against the professional fact-checkers, excess oil that would have run through Keystone XL really is going to cross our northern border via Buffett-owned railroad lines.
More interesting than the railroads themselves, however, are the cars in which the oil will be carried. Since 2013—two years before President Obama moved to block the Keystone project, when the pipeline controversy was just boiling up—Berkshire Hathaway has been 100-percent owner of the Marmon Group, itself a holding company whose primary business is railroad tank cars. Two of its most important subsidiaries are the Union Tank Car Company (UTLX) in the U.S. and its Canadian affiliate Procor. Each is the largest tank-car company in its country. This would, of course, be an unwise investment if freight rail were about to be made obsolete by pipeline expansion.
But that doesn’t seem to be the case at all. In 2015 (the year Obama finally took action against Keystone XL) the Union Tank Car Company acquired 25,000 new cars, a 20-percent increase in its total holdings. In that same year, the Federal Railroad Administration imposed new, stricter regulations on tank cars used to transport hazardous materials like crude. The expensive process of retrofitting, or the even more expensive process of new construction, would be required of any company that wished to remain in the supposedly fading business. UTLX wasted no time, becoming the very first company to produce new, FRA-compliant DOT-117 tank cars, heavily protected against fire, spills, and other unpleasant accidents.
Even with these new regulations, however, accidents were not entirely eliminated. In June of 2018, 14 retrofitted tank cars derailed while carrying crude oil from Canada on a BNSF line, spilling 230,000 gallons into a state waterway. Berkshire Hathaway had an easy solution: simply ban the use of retrofitted cars—many of which, including those that derailed, were owned by ConocoPhillips—and permit only new-construction DOT-117s on its rails. A happy coincidence for fellow Berkshire Hathaway asset UTLX. The aforementioned pipeline bottleneck had surged tank-car leasing rates by more than 150 percent.
The facts add up to two undeniable conclusions, both of which fly in the face of so-called fact-checks. First, Keystone’s cancellation is going to force more crude oil to travel southward by rail. Canada’s production volume, and our reliance on Canadian imports, are only increasing. Given pipelines’ finite capacity, increases in volume without pipeline expansions inevitably force reliance on rail. And second, this shift will substantially benefit Berkshire Hathaway, which owns both the railroads that will carry the oil and the cars it will be carried in.
Just as in Virginia, when powerful people tied to the company killed the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, Berkshire Hathaway is the winner in this game. The losers, again as in Virginia, are the workers involved: The killing of the Keystone XL project annihilates roughly 11,000 jobs. Again, the scale is minuscule if you go by percentages—a mere .007 percent of U.S. jobs cost by Biden’s decision; not nearly enough to meaningfully affect the economy’s performance statistics for his first year in office. But at the human level, it’s devastating.
Struggling communities in the Midwest eagerly looked to the Keystone project as an opportunity for economic revival. That revival isn’t coming; nor are the jobs or the cash the pipeline promised to deliver. We are told—with force enough to invite a little doubt—that nobody benefits from their suffering. But if a young South Dakotan is sitting at home right now unemployed, he might take a little stroll down to the train tracks—BNSF-owned, of course. If he waits long enough, a freighter is bound to roll by heading south. Like everything else, it won’t bother to stop in his little town, but if it passes through just slow enough he might be able to make out that ubiquitous yellow “UTLX” stenciled on the sides of the black—all new, leak-proof, fire-resistant—tank cars carrying oil from the north.