Pipelines vs. Rail: Which Method is Safer for Transporting Oil?

Over the past decade the failure of various levels of Canadian governments to get pipelines built has ignited debate on a very important question:

Which is a safer means to transport oil to market? Is it pipelines, or trains / rail cars via railways?

This question arises from the fact that when pipelines fail to get built, alternative methods to do so are sought. One of those is oil by rail.

As a matter of fact, recent events has resulted in a record-high of barrels of oil being moved out of Alberta by rail. Meanwhile, Rachel Notley, the Premier of Alberta, has announced plans to buy enough rail cars to add another 120,000 barrels of shipping capacity per day to the current railway network.

So, are more oil trains on North America’s railways a better solution?

Let’s take a look at some of the latest studies out there comparing them with one another.

Pipeline vs. rail - ghg emissions comparison

Study #1 - Karen Clay - 2014

According to a study in 2014 performed by Karen Clay, a professor of public policy and economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, transporting oil by rail:

  • Causes about 50% more GHG emissions than doing so via pipeline
  • Results in 2x the health and environmental costs when compared to those associated with shipping oil via pipeline
  • Sees 8x greater costs than pipeline accidents and spills

Study #2 - Fraser Institute – 2015

Conducted by Kenneth P. Green, Fraser Institute’s Resident Scholar and Chair in Energy and Environmental Studies and Taylor Jackson, an Independent Researcher, this study found both oil shipping methods to be safe, but pipeline more so. Key findings:

  • Rail is found to have incident more than 4.5x the amount a pipeline does
  • Between 2003 and 2013, only 17 percent of pipeline spills occur in line pipe, which means most occured in facilities with secondary containment procedures and technologies in place
  • More than 70 percent of pipeline incidents result in a spill of less than 1 cubic metre (1000 litres)
  • Between 2011 and 2013, 99.999% of crude oil and petroleum products shipped via pipeline arrived safely at their destination

Canada’s pipeline vs. rail statistics above correlated with already established literature of the United States, which showed pipelines to be a much safer means of transporting oil. See the figures below:

Pipelines vs. Rail - Number of Releases per Million Tonnes of oil TransportedPipelines vs. rail - Barrels released per million ton-miles per year

Study #3 - University of Alberta - 2016

Another more recent study performed by researchers at University of Alberta’s Faculty of Engineering found GHG emissions to increase anywhere from 61% to 77% when using trains to ship oil instead of pipelines.

The University of Alberta study also found that rail would be better for shorter transportation distances and lower volumes.

Focused on GHGs? Let’s Reduce GHGs!

Today, environmentalist groups in Canada are clearly focused on GHGs and climate change. So, shouldn’t they be against increasing GHG emissions produced from the transportation of oil via rail versus pipeline?

By continually lobbying against Canadian pipelines and landlocking ONLY Canadian oil, these protestors are effectively increasing GHG emissions by pushing oil transportation to rail while allowing other oil-producing nations with little or no environmental rules / regulations to meet growing oil global demand.

The results above are clear: pipelines are safer and more environmentally friendly than rail.

Therefore, pipelines in Canada should be built to not only meet increasing global demand for oil (peak between 2023 and 2040), but also help reduce emissions caused by actions such as the Government of Alberta adding 7,000 railcars to railways to transport more barrels to market.

Pipeline or Rail - What Method Would You Choose?

Who Would You Choose to Buy Oil From?What method of transportation would you choose to get oil to market? Pipelines, which have proven to be much safer and environmentally-friendly? Or perhaps rail car and train, with the added dangers clearly expressed by the studies above?

What's the bottom line?

It’s always important to remember that oil demand isn’t going anywhere for a long time, which is why we NEED Canadian pipelines! If you support the environment, you support pipelines because they reduce greenhouse gas emissions versus transportation via rail and have been proven to be much safer.

Canada does it best and should be benefitting like the rest of the world’s oil producing and exporting nations currently are!


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