The oil train disaster in Quebec has focused the debate about the best way to ship crude oil over long distances. Some have blamed the disaster on the government for not doing enough to regulate the shipping, while others point to the train wreck as clear proof that pipelines are the safer way to go. One thing is certain: more oil is moving across Canada by rail than ever before.
The evidence seems to favour pipelines as the safer choice, when number of incidents, volume of spillage and human mortality are measured. A study of US government data by the pro-pipeline Manhattan Institute for Policy Research concluded that pipelines are safer than any other method of shipping. The study, which analyzed rail, road and pipeline data from 1992 to 2011, found that pipelines were responsible for fewer injuries and “spillage incidents” as well as providing a significant cost advantage. Americans, the report states, are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed in a pipeline accident.
The release rate of oil through pipeline spills, however, was 11,286 gallons per billion ton-miles during the period studied. This was far higher than from rail transport (3,504) but lower than road (13,707). The number of incidents, however, shows that transport by road is the most dangerous, with 19.95 incidents per billion ton-miles, and rail, with 2.08 per billion ton-miles. The pipeline rate was 0.58 “serious incidents” per billion ton-miles.
The Manhattan Institute report called the volume of oil spilled from pipelines in the United States “minuscule” when taken in the context of the amount of petroleum used and shipped every day—1.5 million barrels spilled in 20 years, compared to 7 million gallons shipped daily over 175,000 miles of pipeline.
If safety and environmental damages in the transportation of oil and gas were proportionate to the volume of shipments, one would expect the vast majority of damages to occur on pipelines. This paper finds the exact opposite. The majority of incidents occur on road and rail.
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
The increase in rail shipments of oil has been dramatic in Canada, as pipeline capacity has not kept pace with development of the oil resource. The CBC reported that oil shipments by rail have increased by 28,000 per cent, from just 500 carloads in 2009 to 140,000 this year.
One reason for the sudden increase in rail shipments is the emergence of shale oil. Since wells producing shale oil tend to be relatively short-term operations, producers tend to rely more on rail than on building costly pipelines. The oil on the train that exploded in Quebec originated at the Bakken shale reserves in North Dakota. It was on its way to a refinery in Saint John, NB.
Railway companies have ordered 30,000 new oil tanker cars and spent nearly $1 billion in rail infrastructure to carry the new oil coming from both Alberta oil sands and the Bakken area shale reserves, the CBC said.
The prime minister, Stephen Harper, called the shipping of oil by rail “far more environmentally challenging” than by pipeline. Promised new regulatory standards for the Canadian oil and gas industry have yet to be announced, though the minister, Peter Kent, had said the new rules, which would regulate emissions from the production of oil and gas, would be in place by the middle of this year. Now the government says the regulations will be announced “in due course.”