New Brunswick derailment highlights rail vs pipeline tradeoffs

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posted January 10, 2014

Yet another train derailment involving petroleum products has re-invigorated the debate over how we transport oil in Canada. In this case, 17 cars on a train near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, derailed; nine of which carried dangerous goods including crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas. According to recent reports, the cause of the derailment seems to involve a brake failure of some kind. As we have seen in other derailments, the derailed cars erupted in flames, causing, in this case, the evacuation of 150 people from nearby houses. Fortunately, no one seems to have been injured or killed in this latest incident, and environmental damage while there certainly will be some is expected to be limited and manageable.

The derailment in New Brunswick the third in recent weeks - reveals the unintended consequences of public policy decisions regarding the approval of pipelines. Because of a shortage of pipeline capacity, largely a result of regulatory delays in the U.S. and Canada, more and more petroleum products are hitting the rails. We recently examined the issue in a study for the Fraser Institute on Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil. We examined data pertaining to the safety of three modes of oil transport using publically available data in North America and concluded that pipeline transport is considerably safer than rail; and rail is considerably safer than road transport.

Specifically, we found that on an apples-to-apples basis, transporting a billion tons of oil over a mile of distance by pipeline has a very low likelihood of leakage less than one incident per billion-ton-miles. The risk of a leak by rail is twice as high, at two likely incidents per billion-ton-mile. And trucks are 10 times higher still, with 20 incidents likely in moving a billion tons of oil over a mile.

In terms of volume spilled, it is true that pipeline ruptures release larger quantities of oil than individual truck or train spills, but again, when compared on an aggregate basis in terms of ton miles, pipelines are about equal to trucks, but worse than trains. The average releases for 2005-2009 were 11,286 gallons per billion-ton-miles by pipeline, 13,707 gallons per billion-ton-miles by roadway, but only 3,504 gallons per billion-ton-miles shipped by rail.

When it comes to worker safety, pipelines also look safer. Safety data from the U.S. suggests that one would have only 0.007 injuries per billion-ton-miles, while rail injury rates are 30 times as high. Road is still worse, with an injury rate 37 times that of the oil pipeline.

That pipelines are safer than trucks or trains should come as no surprise. A pipeline is fixed infrastructure with little exposure to the elements, fewer opportunities for operator or mechanical failure, and with greater capacity for real-time monitoring and pre-planning for remediation based on the specific and well-understood characteristics of the pipeline route. Pipeline routes also tend to avoid densely populated areas. Trains and trucks, running above ground, on fluid routes subject to constant change offer far more opportunities for breakdown, operator error, and injuries to workers as well as the general public. And, rail and roadways, by intent, pass through major population centers putting more people at risk when an accident happens.

The public discourse over pipelines has been distorted by environmental groups that have exaggerated their dangers in order to persuade people to oppose their development. But as pipeline projects face increasing scrutiny, regulatory and social barriers, markets are responding in predictable ways, finding other ways to transport oil from where it is produced to where it will be consumed. Those changes, as we're seeing played out in the daily news, have consequences not only for the petroleum industry, but for the environment, for worker safety, and for the safety of those who live along transport routes, whether pipeline, railroad track, or highway.

Reflexive opposition to pipelines flies in the face of the data, which shows that pipelines are safer modes of transport than railways or roadways. Environmentalists engaging in anti-pipeline crusades risk causing more harm than good as their pipeline-stalling actions divert oil transport to rail and road that would otherwise be transported more safely by pipeline.

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