With Boom in Oil and Gas, It’s a Battle Between Trains and Pipelines

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Sen. Mark Udall wants safety regulations on rail cars bearing crude oil and other fuels improved — and quickly.

In his call for improved rail safety for energy transportation, however, Udall carefully omits reference to another safer transportation method for all that crude currently in the, uh, pipeline.

“Trains hauling explosive fuels pose serious dangers to residents and businesses across Colorado. While we are fortunate there was not an explosion, this incident in Weld County shows why I have been fighting so hard to have the U.S. Department of Transportation update its safety regulations,” Udall wrote in a statement published by the Greeley Tribune.

Last week a half dozen rail cars carrying Niobrara crude derailed near LaSalle, Colorado. While a small amount of oil spilled, there were no injuries.

“So far, fairly minimal damage,” Craig Myers, the on-scene coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency, told the Denver Post.

Udall’s concerns for safety have recent precedent — train derailments, spills, and dangerous explosions have occurred in places as far-flung as Virginia, North Dakota, and Quebec, Canada.

But as North Dakota’s Rob Port points out, the problem isn’t crude-bearing train derailments, or by extension, the fossil fuels they carry.

The problem is the rail cars themselves.

“So why does this matter? Well, it turns out that before fiery oil train derailments were making national headlines we had fiery ethanol trail derailments,” Port wrote.

Udall and Port both point to DOT-111 tanker rail cars as the source of the problem due to safety design issues that are well-known.

The recent increase in oil shipments by rail comes from the dramatic surge in oil and gas production. In 2013, crude oil rail carload shipments overtook ethanol, as shipments by rail quadrupled since 2005, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, while acknowledging the safety issue of the rail cars, put the burden on the materials those rail cars carry.

“We cannot wait for a tragic disaster in our state to act,” Cuomo said.

“This accident is a potent reminder of the dangers that come with our dependence on dirty fuels,” said the Virginia Sierra Club.

In another post, Port highlights the use of oil train derailments as an argument against oil production, noting that despite continuing (and long-known) safety concerns over the DOT-111 tank cars, rail safety has actually improved dramatically over the past 30 years, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

Pipelines Safer than Rail?

With the growth in oil and gas production–and the safety issues already embedded within the ongoing use of tank cars known to be a potential hazard — is there an alternative solution for energy transportation needs that mitigates some of those safety concerns?

David Biello, writing in 2013 at the Scientific American discussed the need for an “‘all of the above’ approach to energy transportation.”

In contrast to the Quebec train derailment that caused explosions and killed more than a dozen people, pipeline accidents are more “benign.”

“Compare that with the leak of diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands in Mayflower, Ark., which left a mess but killed no one. The accidents highlight the differences between transporting oil by rail and pipeline. Train transport spills far fewer barrels of oil, but pipeline accidents tend to be more benign, if also more common,” Biello wrote.

While Biello laments “the unflagging demand for oil,” he notes that “deadly accidents involving crude pipelines” are quite rare.

Two studies issued in 2013 point to the advantage of pipelines over rail for energy transportation. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote an issue brief in 2013 titled, “Pipelines are Safest for Transportation of Oil and Gas.

“A review of safety and accident statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation for the extensive network of existing U.S. pipeline — including many linked to Canada — clearly show that, in addition to enjoying a substantial cost advantage, pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents and personal injuries than road and rail. Americans are more likely to get struck by lightning than to be killed in a pipeline accident,” wrote Furchtgott-Roth.

In a separate but similar study conducted by Furchtgott-Roth and her coauthor, Kenneth Green, senior director of natural resource policy studies at Canada’s Fraser Institute, the researchers found that pipelines are the safest option for energy transportation.

“Transporting oil by pipeline is safe and environmentally friendly,” wrote the authors.

Furchtgott-Roth and Green deal with Biello’s concern on spill frequency:

Given the breakdown, Furchtgott-Roth and Green acknowledged it would be natural to expect pipelines to be responsible for more spills and injuries. But using data from U.S. and Canada, they found that road transport was the most dangerous option in terms of the number of incidents, with almost 20 for every billion ton-miles. By contrast, there were roughly two incidents per billion ton-miles traveled annually by train. Pipelines had fewer than 0.6 incidents per billion ton-miles annually.

The rates of injuries requiring hospitalization are 30 times lower among oil pipeline workers compared to rail workers involved in crude shipments, according to U.S. data analyzed by the pair. Trucking oil is 37 times more likely to cause such injuries than pipelines, they found.

The researchers say the “superior safety and environmental performance of pipelines is hardly surprising,” since the pipes are often buried underground and less exposed to damage. And there is extra protection in that pipelines allow oil to flow through its shipping container, rather than via containers that are being hauled around.

“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.

The question for Sen. Udall — if your concern is “trains hauling explosive fuels” posing a danger to residents and businesses of Colorado, and with mounting evidence that pipelines are, in fact, the safest way to transport this new bounty of affordable and reliable energy, why do you oppose expanded pipeline construction?

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