"Later this year, TransCanada will complete the southern portion of its XL pipeline — from Cushing to the Gulf Coast — and that will help.

There’s also a major push underway to proceed with the northern portion of the XL line. This needs approval from Washington because it crosses the border with Canada.

In the run-up to the Presidential election, Mr. Obama placed the northern portion of XL on hold at the insistence of the environmental lobby within the Democratic Party. The potential threat to a sensitive aquifer in Nebraska was the excuse.

The company has since filed a revised route circling around most of the sensitive region to the east. Legislators in Nebraska are now expected to endorse the project.

Better access to American markets is only part of the answer. We need more foreign customers, and for the most part, that means in Asia.

Hence the impetus behind Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline to Prince Rupert, B.C., and Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain oil pipeline twinning to Burnaby. Both are in the midst of hearings.

There are also proposals to make better use of some existing pipelines. This might involve switching some underutilized lines from natural gas to oil. Or some flow reversals. For example, rather than taking foreign oil from the Atlantic Coast and shipping it to refineries in Ontario and Quebec, it might make more sense to send Alberta crude all the way across country to find customers along the U.S. seaboard or in Europe.

There’s also another response that’s shaping investment dramatically in North America. The railroads have spotted the potential for their alternative delivery systems.

What are the positives for oil tanker-car delivery by rail?

The railroads already reach almost everywhere. This includes refinery on the coasts, as well as in large urban centres where new pipelines would have little chance of finding public acceptance. Never mind that their cost of construction would be prohibitive.

The railroads can increase volumes in easy incremental stages, in most cases without environmental hearings. Oil spills from tanker cars are more common than from pipelines, but the damage is smaller and can be contained more easily.

Both the railroads and the oil companies are rapidly increasing their investments in storage tanks along railroad lines. Orders for tanker cars have become so great that delivery dates are now running two years into the future.

The oil market in North American is in considerable flux. While the industry is showing itself sensitive to environmental and native land claim issues, it’s also been quicker on its feet than many might have expected.

The industry’s executives are demonstrating commendable flexibility in seeking imaginative solutions...