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Pipelines Are Safer Than Rail in the Transportation of Oil and Gas


Pipelines Are Safer Than Rail in the Transportation of Oil and Gas

August 12, 2015

Determining how to best transport oil and gas in the future is of critical importance, especially considering that the consumption of these products will likely continue to rise. The stalling of pipeline projects such as Keystone XL has contributed to a sharp rise in the amount of oil and gas being transported by rail. This has prompted the question, which is safer for transporting oil and gas—pipelines or rail?

Our new study examines this question using Canadian data compiled between the years 2003 to 2013. The study found that in this period pipelines experienced 1,226 occurrences and rail experienced 296 occurrences moving similar oil and gas commodities. 

While the number of total occurrences from 2003 to 2013 may be higher for pipelines, broad comparisons of the simple number of accidents over a given period do not take into consideration the amount of product being transported. As an example, in 2013, pipelines transported just under 15 times more product than did rail, and overall between 2003 and 2013 pipelines transported 24,909 million barrels of oil equivalents (Mboe), with rail moving only 1,307 million barrels of oil equivalents.

When taking into consideration the amount of product moved, overall, pipelines experienced 0.049 occurrences per Mboe, while rail experienced 0.227 occurrences per Mboe, making both rail and pipelines are quite safe. However, one is safer and these results suggest that rail is just over 4.5 times more likely to experience an occurrence per Mboe of hydrocarbon transported.   

Also examined were data on how many accidents actually result in the releases of product, finding that 84 percent of pipeline occurrences and 73 percent of rail occurrences result in product being released. However, these high numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Over 70 percent of all pipeline occurrences result in spills less than 1m3 or approximately 264 gallons. Only roughly 2 percent of spills result in large spills of more than 1000m3. And the study found that less than 1 percent of pipeline occurrences result in environmental damage.

Where spills happen matters as well. Releases that occur in facilities are often contained within and may have secondary containment mechanisms and procedures. The study found that the majority of occurrences for both pipelines and rail occur in such places, rather than in transit. More specifically, only 17 percent of pipeline occurrences take place in the line pipe and only 15 percent of rail occurrences take place in transit. 

The Canadian study reaches similar conclusions as previous research in the United States. It is clear that when it comes to transporting oil and gas, pipelines are the safer of the two.

To see the full study, click here


Kenneth Green is a senior director and Taylor Jackson is a policy analyst at the Fraser Institute.

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