After Saturday’s tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que., it is time to speed up the approval of new pipeline construction in North America. Pipelines are the safest way of transporting oil and natural gas, and we need more of them, without delay.
In Lac-Mégantic, the derailment of 73 rail cars carrying crude oil has claimed at least 13 lives with more sure to be announced in coming days.
The calamity follows the June derailment of five rail cars in Calgary, where fortunately no lives were lost.
If this oil shipment had been carried through pipelines, instead of rail, families in Lac-Mégantic would not be grieving for lost loved ones today, and oil would not be polluting Lac Mégantic and the Chaudière River.
Although North America is home to 825,000 kilometres of pipeline in Canada and 4.2-million kilometres in the United States, government authorities still insist on blocking additional pipeline construction.
U.S. President Barack Obama has delayed approval of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil to U.S. refiners on the Gulf of Mexico. In May, British Columbia’s government formally rejected the 1,177-kilometre Northern Gateway pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to British Columbia’s north coast on the grounds that the company has insufficient plans for responding to a major spill.
Surely, with all the new technology available, industry and government can come to some agreement about spill response plans. Then, these pipelines, and many more, should be approved. North America’s oil and gas production is booming, and statistics show that pipelines are safer than road and rail.
Data to compare the safety of transportation of oil and gas by pipeline, road and rail in the United States is publicly available from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Operators report to PHMSA any incident that crosses a certain safety threshold, as well as injuries and fatalities.
U.S. data on incident, injury and fatality rates for pipelines, road and rail for the period 2005 through 2009, the latest data available, show that road and rail have higher rates of serious incidents, injuries and fatalities than pipelines, even though more road and rail incidents go unreported. Americans are 75 per cent more likely to get killed by lightning than to be killed in a pipeline accident.
Between 2005 and 2009, road had the highest rate of incidents, with 19.95 per billion ton-miles. This was followed by rail, with 2.08 per billion ton-miles. Natural gas transmission came next, with 0.89 per billion ton-miles. Oil pipelines were the safest, with 0.58 serious incidents per billion ton-miles.
The same can be seen from rates of injury per ton-mile. Rail transport was 37 times more likely to result in injuries requiring hospitalization than pipeline, and road was 143 times more likely.
Fatality rates showed the same pattern. Pipeline transportation was safest, with rail 25 times as likely to have fatalities, and road 70 times as likely.
A June study by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences entitled “Effects of Diluted Bitumen on Crude Oil Transmission Pipelines” found no evidence that diluted bitumen, the type of crude oil that would flow through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, would contribute to pipeline failures or corrosion, as some have claimed.
Rising oil and gas production is outpacing the transportation capacity of North America’s inadequate pipeline infrastructure. Crude oil shipments via rail have continued to expand at an accelerating rate. In 2012, U.S. Class I railroads delivered 233,811 carloads of crude, compared with 66,000 in 2011 and 9,500 in 2008. According to Statistics Canada, 8,832 rail cars were shipping fuel oils in March 2012, compared with 5,602 in March 2011.
As the United States continues to ramp up production of oil and natural gas, and as President Obama’s administration continues its war against coal, pipeline infrastructure becomes even more important. We need pipelines to get oil from Alberta and North Dakota to the refineries on the Gulf, and shale gas from plays that include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Alabama, and North Dakota to the rest of the country.
There will always be some transportation of oil by road, rail and pipeline. But Lac-Mégantic’s tragedy brings home to all of us that in evaluating whether to build more pipelines, human safety should be a paramount consideration.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. She is the author of Pipelines Are Safest for Transportation of Oil and Gas.