Crude oil is moving around the world, around North America, around pristine wilderness, around our cities and towns. It’s going to keep moving, so what is the safest way to move it?
The short answer is: truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat (Oilprice.com). But that’s only for human death and property destruction. For the normalized amount of oil spilled, it’s truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat (Congressional Research Service). Different yet again is for environmental impact (dominated by impact to aquatic habitat), where it’s boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.
So it depends upon what your definition is for worse. Is it death and destruction? Is it amount of oil released? Is it land area or water volume contaminated? Is it habitat destroyed? Is it CO2 emitted?
In both the United States and Canada, more crude oil, petroleum products, and natural gas are transported in pipelines than by all other modes combined, using the unit of ton-mile which is the number of tons shipped over number of miles (The Fraser Institute).
In Canada, almost all (97%) of natural gas and petroleum products are transported by pipelines (Canadian Energy Pipeline Association). In the U.S., 70% of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline. 23% of oil shipments are on tankers and barges over water. Trucking only accounts for 4% of shipments, and rail for a mere 3%.
A rail tank car carries about 30,000 gallons (700 barrels). A train of 100 cars carries about 3 million gallons (70,000 barrels) and takes over 3 days to travel from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, about a million gallons per day. The Keystone will carry about 35 million gallons per day (830,000 barrels). This puts pressure on rail transport to get bigger and bigger, and include more cars per train, the very reason that crude oil train wrecks have dramatically increased lately. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled in the previous thirty-seven years.
Using data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, 1.5 million gallons of crude oil were spilled from rail cars in 2013. On the other hand, from 1975 to 2012, railroads spilled a total of 800,000 gallons of crude oil (McClatchy).
This data does not include rail accidents in Canada. 1.5 million gallons of crude oil spilled in a single day last year in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and 47 people were killed.
If crude oil shipping on rail is becoming a preferred mode for oil producers in our North American energy boom, this trend is very disturbing. In 2011, crude rail capacity between southern Alberta and the northern U.S. Great Plains tripled to about 300,000 barrels per day, about a third of the Keystone XL capacity.
The Association of American Railroads points out that over 11 billion gallons of crude were shipped in 2013, so these spills account for only one-hundredth of one percent. On the other hand, the environment and people’s health don’t care about what made it though OK, just what was spilled.
Although the news is filled with comparisons between pipelines and trains, the third vector is trucks. The issue with trucking is it takes lots and lots of trucks to move billions of gallons of crude since a single tank trailer only holds about 9,000 gallons or 200 barrels, a little under a third of a rail car. And shipping by truck instead of the Keystone XL would take another million-and-a-half tanker trucks. Trucking is the most risky form of transport from an accident standpoint and also from a spill standpoint. However, it is the least impactful from an environmental standpoint since each truck is small.
The thing about ships is that they carry a lot of oil per boat and many of the largest spills in history are from boats, such as the Exxon Valdez and the one from a collision in the Houston Ship Channel earlier this year (NOLA). Most important is that they have immediate impact on aquatic ecosystems both in the ocean, in rivers, or along shorelines that are usually sensitive habitats.
The most controversial transport mode today is pipeline, mainly because of the Keystone XL debate and the recent Pegasus and Enbridge pipeline ruptures. The industry points to the generally good safety record, but pipeline spills are inevitable. Over 300 pipeline spills occur each year in North America that are deemed significant, that is, either there is a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization, it causes $50,000 or more in total costs (measured in 1984 dollars), there are highly volatile liquid releases of more than 5 barrels or other liquid releases of more than 50 barrels, or there are liquid releases that result in an unintentional fire or explosion.
These measures are in human health and property damage, not environmental effects. Environmental impacts are very difficult to estimate and, in almost all cases, are not even attempted.
In the end, all of these transportation modes can be made safer if stricter regulatory controls and modern technologies are in place,but the questions remain – can we make the industry comply and which ones do we want to invest in?