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Pipelines pose fewer risks for workers and less spills compared to transporting oil by rail or truck

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Release Date: October 15, 2013

CALGARY, AB—Oil transport by pipeline presents significantly lower safety risks to workers than oil movement by road or rail, concludes a study published today by the Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian public policy think-tank.

The study, Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil, determined that the rate of injury requiring hospitalization was 30 times lower among oil pipeline workers compared to rail workers involved in the transport of oil, based on extensive data collected in the United States. Road transport fared even worse, with an injury rate 37 times higher than pipelines based on reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation for the period 2005-2009.

The study also found the risk of spill incidents is lower for pipelines per billion ton-miles of oil movement compared to rail and road.

Resistance to pipeline infrastructure expansion is putting more pressure on road and rail systems as growth in North American oil production outpaces pipeline capacity. Petroleum production is now nearly 18 million barrels a day, and could climb to 27 million barrels a day by 2020.

“People’s unfortunate tendency to boil complicated issues down to simple black-or-white equivalencies interferes with their ability to really understand the trade-offs involved in the choice to move oil by pipeline, rail, train, and so on. Worker safety is an important dimension of the overall equation that tends to be overlooked in the discussion of pipelines such as Keystone XL,” said study co-author Kenneth P. Green, Fraser Institute senior director of natural resources studies.

Road transport had the highest chance of a spill, almost 20 incidents per billion ton-miles. Rail had slightly over two incidents per billion ton-miles annually while pipelines had less than 0.6 per billion ton-miles annually.

The superior safety and environmental performance of pipelines is “hardly surprising,” the study said.

“When you have more moving parts, more potential interactions with other non-controlled actors such as trains and trucks, the potential for accidents is higher when compared to pipelines,” Green said.

“It’s not a completely simple comparison. When you have a pipeline spill the release volumes are higher than for a truck or train incident. But with road and rail you have risk of more incidents in more places, so the overall question of environmental protection becomes unclear.”

Canadian pipeline data reported by the National Energy Board shows similar risk patterns. The study found the 10-year average for the frequency of liquid leaks is approximately three leaks per 1,000 km of pipeline, a “remarkably small” average considering that Canada produces and transports 3.2 million barrels of oil each day, and that 97 per cent of Canadian petroleum and natural gas products move by pipeline.

The fatality rate among Canadian oil pipeline workers averaged 0.2 per year from 2000 to 2009 while injuries to contractors and other workers averaged 3.8 per 200,000 work-hours over the same time span.

Rail-related fatalities totaled 71 in 2011, compared to the five-year average of 81. There were 63 dangerous goods leaks in 2012, representing 31 per cent of all reported rail incidents. The Transportation Safety Board recorded 1,023 reportable rail accidents in 2011, a 15 per cent decrease from the 2006-2010 average of 1,198.

Transport Canada received reports of 345 accidents involving trucks hauling dangerous goods with crude oil involved 27 per cent of the time.

“Supervision of these different transport modes lies with different agencies that may or may not adequately coordinate how they are handled. Governments need to consider the trade-offs,” Green said.

“Canada is poised to dramatically increase production of bitumen from oil sand deposits in Western Canada. For Canada to realize the massive economic benefits from the development of those oil sands, the transport conundrum must be solved.”

Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil is the second in a series of Fraser Institute reports examining the issues affecting transportation of Canadian oil and the impediments to getting it to market.



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