Four recent oil-train derailments – two in the United States and two in Canada accompanied by yet another drive-by rhetorical smear of the Keystone XL pipeline by U.S. President Barack Obama – have re-invigorated the debate over how Canadians and Americans transport oil.
The most recent spills and explosions in Illinois, West Virginia and Ontario all involved long oil trains of about 100 cars. So far as we know, they all met the most recent railcar designs and regulatory requirements in the U.S. and Canada.
The barrage of derailments continues to illuminate the folly of the anti-pipeline movement.
Because of an artificially created shortage of pipeline capacity in the U.S. and Canada, more petroleum products are moving by rail. This issue was deeply analyzed in a 2013 study I co-authored on Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil. Using the most comprehensive available U.S. data, we observed that while the vast majority of oil transported by any mode arrives safely at its destination, there are still discernable differences in relative safety. On virtually all metrics of safety, whether environmental or occupational, it was clear that movement of oil and gas is safest via pipeline and less safe via rail.
Specifically, on an apples-to-apples basis, transport one billion tons of oil over a mile by pipeline and there is a very low likelihood of leakage – less than one incident per billion ton-miles. The risk of a leak by rail is twice as high, at two likely incidents. And trucks are 10 times higher still, with 20 incidents likely in moving a billion tons of oil over a mile. On volumes spilled, it’s true that pipeline ruptures release larger quantities of oil than individual truck or train spills, but recovery rates for oil spilled from pipelines can reach 50 per cent, and they are far less likely to pose a threat to large population centres. When it comes to worker safety, pipelines also look safer. Safety data from the U.S. suggests that one would have only 0.007 injuries per billion ton-miles, while rail injury rates are 30 times as high.
That pipelines are safer than trucks or trains should come as no surprise. A pipeline is fixed infrastructure with little exposure to the elements, fewer opportunities for operator or mechanical failure, and with greater capacity for real-time monitoring and pre-planning for remediation based on the specific and well-understood characteristics of the pipeline route. Pipeline routes are also often built away from densely populated areas. Trains and trucks, running above ground, are on fluid routes subject to constant change. That offers far more opportunities for breakdown, operator error, and injuries to workers as well as the general public. And, rail and roadways, by intent, pass through major population centres putting more people at risk when an accident happens.
Environmentalists and anti-fossil-fuel allies have successfully stalled the development of safer pipeline capacity for years now. As a result, more oil is transported by railways, increasing health and environmental impacts rather than reducing them.
Anti-pipeliners would undoubtedly say that the solution to these problems is just to “stop using oil,” but that idea is essentially the mother of all denial: developed economies are essentially fossil-fuel economies from top to bottom, with a helping of hydro and nuclear power on the side – 87 per cent of all the energy used around the world is generated from fossil fuels, and 80 per cent of all transportation is powered by oil and its derivatives. Renewables such as wind and solar power are akin to the skin of an apple – pretty, but not terribly filling in and of itself.
Opposition to pipelines flies in the face of safety data, which shows that pipelines are safer modes of transport than railways. This is not the pipeline engineering equivalent of rocket science. And despite the current downturn in world oil prices, energy agencies and companies expect future demand to rebound, and create the incentives to develop oil in both the U.S. and Canada.
Environmentalists who engage in anti-pipeline crusades risk causing more harm than good. Their pipeline-stalling actions are diverting oil to rail; oil that would otherwise be transported more safely by pipeline.
Kenneth P. Green is Senior Director, Natural Resource Studies at the Fraser Institute.