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

Pipeline vs. rail - ghg emissions comparison

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 transport oil must be used instead. One of those is oil by rail.

When pipeline like the Keystone XL are shutdown, more oil is moved from Canada by rail to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and Gulf Coast. Oil by rail is much riskier and costlier than when done by pipeline, and it is much more GHG-intensive than its pipeline counterpart.

Let’s take a look at some of the latest studies comparing the economic, health and safety, and environmental aspects of oil by rail vs pipeline.

Study #1 - Karen Clay

Trans mountain pipeline Canada has operated without marine incident since 1956

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 per cent 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

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 per cent of pipeline spills occur in line pipe, which means most occurred in facilities with secondary containment procedures and technologies in place
  • More than 70 per cent of pipeline incidents result in a spill of less than 1 cubic metre (1000 litres)
  • Between 2011 and 2013, 99.999 per cent 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

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 per cent 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.

Pipelines are best for transporting oil & gas

The evidence is clear: pipelines are the most environmentally friendly and least risky way to transport oil.

Today, "environmentalist" groups in Canada are focused on reducing the amount of GHGs being released into the atmosphere. So, shouldn’t they be against increasing GHG emissions produced from the transportation of oil via rail or truck versus pipeline?

By continually fighting against Canadian pipelines and landlocking Canadian oil, pipeline detractors are essentially increasing GHG emissions by pushing oil transportation to other more intensive means while allowing other oil-producing nations with little or no environmental regulations to meet growing oil global demand.

The results above are clear: pipelines are much safer and more environmentally friendly than rail. Pipelines in Canada should be built to not only meet increasing global demand for oil, but also help reduce emissions globally.

Pipeline or rail - Which would you choose?

Trans Mountain Benefit Agreements Signed Between TMX and Indigenous Canada

What method of transportation would you choose to get oil to market? Pipelines, which have proven to be much safer and environmentally-friendly? Or railcar, despite the added dangers clearly expressed by the studies above?

Global oil demand isn’t going anywhere for a long time, which is why we need new pipelines! If you support the environment, you support pipelines because for all the reasons above, in addition to the substantial economic opportunities they generate for Canadian families.

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