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Train Crash Shows Need for More Pipelines

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Train Crash Shows Need for More Pipelines

August 8, 2017

Hundreds of people living in the town of Hyndman, about 100 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, were put on high alert and searching for answers when over 30 cars of a freight train derailed nearby. Reports indicate that one car was carrying liquefied petroleum gas and additional cars carried other hazardous materials. If the liquefied petroleum gas had been carried in pipelines, the accident might not have occurred.

The cause of the August 2nd incident has not yet been reported, but three train cars, a nearby garage, and a home all caught fire, and flames were reportedly still raging hours later.

Thankfully no injuries have been reported, but people living within a one-mile radius of the incident were evacuated from their homes. A full day later, it is still unclear how long they will be forced to remain away.  

The derailment has already led to massive disruptions for hundreds of people and cost millions of dollars. Roads have been closed and train service between D.C. and Pittsburgh was temporarily suspended. 

Health officials are currently conducting air and ground studies to determine the extent of possible pollution. 

This is, unfortunately, becoming something of a regular occurrence in Pennsylvania. In July, another train derailment near Plainfield caused thousands of gallons of crude oil to leak and forced evacuations in the surrounding area, and six cars of another train derailed in Somerset County that same month.

Rail cars are not the only option when it comes to transporting hazardous materials such as liquefied petroleum gas. The fundamental concern with transportation of these types of products is safety, specifically rates of incidents and related injuries or fatalities.

Along these metrics, pipelines are a safer alternative to the other modes of transportation. In many places, the lack of pipeline capacity means that producers have to turn to road or rail to get their products where they need to go.

Regulators should review and approve well-vetted proposals in order to allow pipeline capacity to accommodate increased production.

In a recent report, I analyze pipeline mileage and incident reports from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). From 2007 to 2016, rail transportation of oil, natural gas, and related products had an average annual incident rate of 2.2 per billion ton-miles, compared to 0.66 for hazardous liquid pipelines. 

Hazardous liquid pipelines also compare favorably in terms of related injury and fatality rates.

Pipeline safety has also grown better over time. The rates of serious incidents—those resulting in a fatality or injury requiring inpatient hospitalization— fell from an annual average of 0.121 per 1,000 miles of pipeline over the period 1997 to 2001, to 0.111 from 2012 to 2016. 

According to PHMSA, in 2016 Pennsylvania had 13 different operators and more than 3,100 miles of hazardous liquid pipelines. The state has only had one serious incident for hazardous liquid pipelines since 2000, with no fatalities and one injury.

PHMSA only provides data on the underlying cause for gas pipelines, but it is still informative. For longer-range gas transmission pipelines, which would be comparable to the Hyndman train that was transporting freight from Chicago to New York state, the leading cause of accidents is excavation damage, generally the result of an agent other than the pipeline operator or a contractor excavating and damaging the pipeline. “Other Outside Force Damage” is tied for the second-leading cause, of which vehicular damage accounts for the vast majority.

Pipeline equipment and operation are safer than the topline incident numbers would indicate.

With growing domestic energy production in oil, natural gas and their related products, companies will continue to need to transport them from the source to their end destination. Pipelines have lower incident rates than other modes of transportation. Pipeline safety has improved significantly, and will continue to do so.

Incidents like the Hyndman derailment are disruptive and dangerous. Pipelines could offer a safer, more reliable option.

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute and author of the new report The Energy Bottleneck: Why America Needs More Pipelines. Follow him on twitter @CharlesHHughes

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