Pipelines Trump Rail for Safety


When it comes to transporting oil and gas, pipelines are safer than rail in Canada, according to a study released this month.

An independent, non-partisan public policy think-tank—the Fraser Institute—acknowledged that transporting oil and gas by either pipeline or rail is generally quite safe. However, when the amount of product being moved is taken into account, pipelines take the advantage.

The institute determined that the rate of occurrences (incidents or accidents) per million barrels of oil transported is more than 4.5 times higher for rail than it is for pipelines, based on the 2003-2013 period studied.

This finding is based on data compiled data from Canada’s Transportation Safety Board (TSB) and Transport Canada and published in Safety in the Transportation of Oil and Gas: Pipelines or Rail?

Pipeline vs. Rail

“Federally regulated pipelines in Canada currently move just under 15 times more hydrocarbons than do the railroads,” said Kenneth P. Green, study lead author and Fraser Institute senior director of natural resources studies, in a news release.

“But with increased production and continued opposition to new pipeline infrastructure, more and more oil is being pushed to rail—a mode of transport which is more likely to experience a spill,” he added.

In a recent article in the Vancouver Sun, Green indicated that rail brings with it more opportunity for human error, as well as a greater threat of spills and injury to oil transport workers.

He also acknowledged that the volume of a single pipeline spill could be much greater than a rail spill. However, he told the Sun the report examined overall safety, considering the number of accidents per million barrels rather than individual incidents. 

Examining the Data

The study did show that, because of larger transport volumes, pipelines experienced more occurrences compared to rail (1,226 versus 296) in the period studied.

But, according to the TSB, the vast majority (99 percent) of those incidents or accidents did not damage the environment.

Specifically, 73 percent of pipeline occurrences resulted in spills of less than 1 cubic meter, while 16 percent didn’t cause any spill whatsoever.

Additionally, most occurrences (83 percent) didn’t happen in transit but in facilities (i.e., compressor stations, processing plants and terminals), which are more likely to have secondary containment mechanisms and procedures in place.

“A telling statistic comes from Natural Resources Canada,” said Green, “which notes that between 2011 and 2014, 99.999 percent of crude oil and petroleum products sent by federally regulated pipelines arrived at their destination safely.”

© iStock.com / clu

Most transport incidents with pipelines to do not occur in transit but in facilities where secondary containment mechanisms and procedures are in place.

The study also references the growing literature about pipeline safety coming from the United States, which suggests that transporting oil by methods other than pipelines—i.e., rail or truck—is linked to a greater likelihood of spills and injury to oil transport workers.

“In both Canada and the United States, rising oil and natural gas production necessitates the expansion of our transportation capacity,” Green said.

The Mood in Canada

In Canada, the study is being referenced in support of several pipeline proposals and projects in the works, according to the Vancouver Sun.

It referred to the $7.9-billion Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, which was approved last year, but was halted due to legal challenges from environmentalists and First Nations.

The Toronto Sun indicated that TransCanada spokesman Mark Cooper pointed to the study when outlining why its cross-border Keystone XL oil pipeline should be approved.

The Vancouver Sun also looked back to a related rail disaster from two years earlier, the fourth deadliest in Canada’s history and its deadliest non-passenger train accident.

In July 2013, a freight train carrying crude oil derailed exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying much of the town.

“The decision of which mode of transport should be used is a simple one,” Green said in the Institute's release. “It should be the safer one; it should be pipelines.”


Tagged categories: Health & Safety; North America; Oil and Gas; Pipeline; Pipelines; Rail; Railcars; Transportation

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