Rising oil and natural gas production in North America is outpacing the transportation capacity of our pipeline infrastructure. As one of us (Green) discussed in a previous study in this series, The Canadian Oil Transport Conundrum, Canada is poised to dramatically increase production of bitumen from oil sand deposits in Western Canada. In the face of expanding production and pipeline bottlenecks, more oil is moving by rail in both Canada and the United States, but transport of oil by rail (or other non-pipeline transportation modes) carries its own set of risks. While pipelines may leak, trains and trucks can crash, hurting individuals, as we saw in Lac-Mégantic in July 2013, and barges can sink. There is no perfectly risk-free way to transport oil, or anything else for that matter.
Although North America is home to 825,000 kilometres of pipeline in Canada and 4.2 million kilometres in the US, US government authorities still insist on blocking additional pipeline construction.
After reviewing available data on the safety of different oil-transport modes, we conclude that the evidence is clear: transporting oil by pipeline is safe and environmentally friendly. Furthermore, pipeline transportation is safer than transportation by road, rail, or barge, as measured by incidents, injuries, and fatalities.
For North America to realize the massive economic benefits from the development of those oil sands, the transport conundrum must be solved. At present, resistance to pipeline transport is sending oil to market by modes of transport that pose higher risks of spills and personal injuries such as rail and road transport.