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Are Pipelines Safer Than Railroads for Carrying Oil?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The Lac-Megantic explosion and fire as captured by satellite. Courtesy of NASA

The glut of new oil in North America has been accompanied by a boom in moving that petroleum by train. Railway traffic of crude oil in tankers has more than doubled in volume since 2011—and such transport led to tragedy in the early hours of July 6. At least 13 people were killed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when 72 runaway railcars carrying crude oil derailed, crashed and exploded.

Compare that with the leak of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands in Mayflower, Ark., which left a mess but killed no one. The accidents highlight the differences between transporting oil by rail and pipeline. Train transport spills far fewer barrels of oil, but pipeline accidents tend to be more benign, if also more common.

As the Association of American Railroads points out, the volume of oil spilled by railcars is “less than 1 percent of the total pipeline spills.” That’s 2,268 barrels spilled by the railroads between 2002 and 2012, compared to 474,441 barrels spilled by pipeline operators over the same span, according to the Association’s numbers. But there hasn’t been a fatality from a petroleum-related pipeline accident since 1999, when a gasoline pipeline ruptured and the volatile fuel exploded, killing three young boys. Deadly accidents involving crude pipelines are even rarer. “Crude oil pipeline spills generally do not result in a fire or an explosion,” says attorney Brigham McCown, the first administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Pipelines transport the lion’s share of crude oil because they are the safest, most environmentally friendly and least expensive way to transport large volumes of energy products.”

But the boom in unconventional oil, from the tar sands of Alberta to the oil shale of North Dakota, has outpaced the growth of the pipeline infrastructure that would move those products. Efforts to build more pipelines, such as the Keystone XL project that would move oil from the tar sands to Texas’s Gulf Coast, have faced significant political and environmental challenges. And, regardless of whether new pipelines are built, the glut of oil from new sources suggests that a variety of transport methods will be needed, in what might be dubbed an “all of the above” approach to energy transportation.

Ultimately, the problem is the unflagging demand for oil, which ceaselessly adds to the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere and changing the global climate and necessitates moving large quantities of crude around North America, opening up the potential for fatal accidents and spills. Until the U.S. and the world significantly cut oil use, petroleum will continue to move by train, truck, pipeline and supertanker, each with its own risks.

David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sisko 9:16 am 07/10/2013

    David Biello
    Isn’t it true that transporting fossil fuels via a pipeline is more energy efficient that transporting that same volume via railroad? Doesn’t that mean that the pipeline results in the release of less CO2 that using a railroad? Answer- Yes and yes.

    So since those fossil fuels are going to be eventually used, isn’t the best answer to use those resources as efficiently as possible? Doesn’t that mean that being against the pipeline is being illogical?

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  2. 2. rkipling 9:58 am 07/10/2013

    The topic seems only a vehicle to rail against consumption of oil. So, it’s a bad thing that the U.S. has a chance to be energy self sufficient?

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  3. 3. edprochak 10:44 am 07/10/2013

    The only long term solution to be energy self sufficient is to get off of fossil fuels. No matter how big the reserves are, they are FINITE.

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  4. 4. Soccerdad 10:57 am 07/10/2013

    It wasn’t transport of crude by rail which “led to tragedy”. It was a bizarre procedure by which this particular train operator secured the train. The correct procedure is to set enough hand brakes to secure the train, then test by turning off the engine and associated air brakes. In this case, they relied on the engine continuing to run unattended to secure the load – an inherently unstable proposition.

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  5. 5. Gomby007 1:24 pm 07/10/2013

    You say there hasn’t been a pipeline incident with deaths since 1999, but that simply isn’t true. There was a petrolium pipeline in Mexico that blew up in 2010, killing 28 people. Other than that, thank you for this article.

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  6. 6. psuforever1 1:33 pm 07/10/2013

    Evidence is emerging that the locomotive of the oil train crash in Lec Megantic was tampered with. Therefore,reaching any conclusions at this time are premature.

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  7. 7. greenhome123 2:13 pm 07/10/2013

    I live right by a train station in Oceanside California, and I sometimes worry that a train could derail and crash into my apartment. Sisko, as much as I hate to say it, you do have a good point about being against the pipeline as being illogical.

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  8. 8. jonhuie 3:11 pm 07/10/2013

    What the article fails to address is that most of the outrage expressed over the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline is, in fact, outrage over the use of petroleum extracted from tar sands at tremendous environmental costs. We want to end the development of tar sands – not to prefer one means of transportation over another.

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  9. 9. sid123rod 6:20 pm 07/10/2013

    merely observation but an explosion today does no damage tomorrow. true it devasted those today, but it stops at that.If you would direct some attention away from me and put it on your unborn decendants.ask were they hurt more by this horrible event of the day, or the horrible activities in the name of economy.

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  10. 10. marclevesque 6:57 pm 07/10/2013

    @Sisko, did you really read the article and then comment on the opposite of what the author said ?


    “It wasn’t transport of crude by rail which “led to tragedy”.

    It was that and much more. Railway regulations, the tanker car design, private enterprise cutting corners, a change of shift in a town 15 km up the line, the one operative locomotive was turned off because of a fire in the engine, no other locomotive was started to keep the air brakes pressurized, the hand brakes on enough cars were not engaged or were broken, the train was left unattended, a 1.4% slope, acceleration to around 80km/h, tracks going through the center of the next town, a 45 degree corner … and that’s the news so far, but one thing for sure, if it was canola oil instead of crude, things would have been a lot different.

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  11. 11. gwmckenzie 11:29 pm 07/10/2013

    If there’s a connection between the title and the content, it’s well hidden.

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  12. 12. jimronback 7:23 pm 07/11/2013

    Maybetransportation safety regulators, railroad operators and town planners are suffering from deliberate ignorance. Perhaps it is time look “Beyond Normal Accidents and High Reliability Organizations:
    The Need for an Alternative Approach to Safety in Complex Systems”, Karen Marais, Nicolas Dulac, and Nancy Leveson, MIT, March 24, 2004. .

    Although pipelines and supertankers may be safer compared to railroad tank cars and tank trucks in terms of incidents per ton miles for transporting stored energy, what really is missing is eliminating inappropriate land use planning that allows large energy sources, e.g., multiple tank cars, with plausible incidents having potentially high consequences to be located near or routed through residential areas.

    To reduce our dependance on fossil fuels, distributing energy via the electrical grid using hydro, solar, wind, tidal, thermal and nuclear power sources would be much less risky.
    “Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century – U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission” July 12, 2011 page 2.

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  13. 13. Karl Johanson 2:06 pm 07/13/2013

    “…there hasn’t been a fatality from a petroleum-related pipeline accident since 1999…” That happens not to be the case.
    -24 dead 122 injured. Natural gas pipeline, Ghislenghien, Belgium July 30, 2004.
    -Total death toll unknown. Explosion of two petroleum pipelines and subsequent fire in the port of Dalian, in northern China’s Liaoning province on Saturday, on July 17, 2010.
    -100 dead, 120 injured, Pipeline fire in Nairobi, Kenya. 2011.
    -At least 27 dead, more than 50 injured. 2010: Oil pipeline explosion at San Martín Texmelucan. December 19, 2010.
    I could list several more, but the point is made. The author did zero research on that point(it took 11 seconds to find these examples) or they lied. Either way, the author owes the readers a retraction and an apology.

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  14. 14. mollyungulate 5:36 pm 07/14/2013

    I find it discouraging that the only loss of life considered worthy of comment here is the loss of human life. With a pipeline oil spill, there is an enormous loss of life, whether it be plant, insect, bird, or other non-human loss. I guess this just doesn’t count when you are promoting oil transport by pipeline.

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  15. 15. mollyungulate 5:37 pm 07/14/2013

    Sorry, I forgot to say loss of fish, and that’s a big one.

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  16. 16. kienhua68 3:28 am 07/15/2013

    Has anyone considered that most, if not all, the tar sands and shale oil is being sold to China and the like.
    So all this talky talk is really a sales pitch to sell oil and totally deplete North America of its resources.
    Pretty smart move. Or is it.

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  17. 17. Dr. Strangelove 8:55 pm 07/15/2013

    Pipelines are more efficient than railroads in energy consumed per barrel per mile of oil transported. Pipelines are safer than railroads in fatalities per barrel per mile of oil transported. Absolute numbers are meaningless because pipelines transport more oil than railroads so you expect more total energy consumption and fatalities.

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  18. 18. Quinn the Eskimo 2:03 pm 08/11/2013

    Ask Enbridge. Their million+ gallon spill into the Kalamazoo River is still not cleaned up (2010 spill). But it’s all good by Enbridge. 30″ pipe ran full pressure for 30 hours. No problem. Nope none.

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