By Juliana Henao, Communications Intern
Media outlets have been very focused recently on reporting oil train derailments and explosions. Additionally, the Keystone XL pipeline has hastened political debates and arguments for years by both political parties since its initial proposal in 2008 – and the May 19th pipeline oil spill in California isn’t helping matters. In the midst of all of this commotion, a million questions are being asked, yet no one can seem to reach a conclusion about what method of transporting oil is truly safest and economically feasible – or if we are just stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Some say the solution to this problem is transporting the volatile crude via pipelines, while others believe it is a matter of increasing regulations, standards, and compliance for transport by train. The answer is simply not simple.
In light of this, a few of the folks at FracTracker gathered some facts on pipelines vs oil trains to lay out this issue in a clearer fashion.
Let’s start with trains.
Due to the increasing demand of crude oil supply, there has been increasing activity in the transportation of crude oil by rail, which provides flexibility and quick transportation throughout the U.S. and its 115 refineries. Railroads are also willing to offer shippers shorter contracts than pipelines and other transportation methods, making them a more favorable method of crude oil transportation.
In 2008, U.S. freight trains were delivering somewhere from 9-10,000 carloads of crude oil. In 2013, they delivered roughly 435,560 carloads of crude oil, showing a 20-fold increase in crude oil shipments.
Oil trains, as well as pipelines, can pose a detrimental risk to communities and public health in the case of an explosion and/or spill. Danger Around the Bend describes in detail the dangers of transporting Bakken Formation crude oil from North Dakota to parts all over the country.
Some of the risks of transporting volatile crude via train have been clearly depicted in the news with announcements of spills, derailments, and explosions in urban and suburban areas, putting many people in harm’s way. Despite the decrease in spills between 1996 and 2007, devastating train accidents like the one on July 6, 2013 have raised questions about the safety of transportation by train.
Learn more about this trend and the increasing risk of exploding oil trains in a post by Randy Sargent of CMU.
Trains and train tracks in general can be very dangerous, as demonstrated by the deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia this May. The total number of incidents in 2014, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, sum up to 11,793 – with 818 of those being fatal. These fatalities have been linked to a range of possible causes, but the numbers depict the gravity of safety issues within the railroad regulations.
When it comes to train safety and regulations, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is in charge. Some of the current efforts to increase the safety of oil trains include safer tank car design, adding breaking power, reducing the train speed limits through urban areas and increasing crew size. One of the most important improvements, however, includes an increase in oil spill response, which is managed through the National Oil and Hazardous Substance Contingency Plan.
Now, let’s talk pipelines.
As we all know, finishing the Keystone XL pipeline has stirred years of controversy, since this project was initially proposed back in 2008. On January 31, 2014, the U.S. Department of State released the Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would transport up to 830,000 barrels of tar sand oil per day through an 875-mile long pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast area. Below we have mapped the current and proposed tracks of the Keystone, along with the numerous ports, refineries, and rail lines:
The Keystone XL, Alberta oil sands, North American oil refineries and associated ports. View fullscreen and click Details for the metadata behind this map.
The SEIS discussed the impacts that the proposed pipeline would have on the environment and public health based on research, modeling, and analysis. One of the many purposes of the SEIS is to focus on whether the proposed project serves the national interest by comparing the risks to the benefits – discussed in more detail below.
The current risks associated with pipelines are similar to the risks associated with other modes of transporting oil across the United States. Oil spills are among the highest risks, but with the XL pipeline, it’s a more profound risk due to the type of oil being carried: tar sand oil. Tar sand oil, also known as heavy oil, is known for its tedious processing and its many environmental implications. Burning one single barrel of oil produced from Canadian tar sands generally emits 170 pounds of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It also requires large amounts of energy and water, much of which cannot be recycled, to separate the oil from the tar sands and transform the oil into a form of petroleum that can be processed by refineries.
According to the final SEIS:
The proposed project would emit approximately 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year during the construction period (up to three times as much than producing conventional crude), which would be directly emitted through fuel use in construction vehicles and equipment as well as land clearing activities including open burning, and indirectly from electricity usage.
Additional risks associated with the XL pipeline include potential groundwater contamination of major aquifers – particularly the Ogallala Aquifer – as well as deforestation, habitat destruction, and fragmentation.
In the event of an oil spill from the Keystone XL or other pipelines crossing the U.S., the responsibility for who cleans it up does not fall on TransCanada. According to a report from the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), tar sand oils are exempt from paying into the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Amendments that would require TransCanada to pay the 8-cent-per-barrel fee to the fund have not been passed.
Devastating oil spills such as the one in Santa Barbara in mid May reflect the impact it not only has on wildlife, but on the local culture, especially on those who depend on fisheries and whose lives revolves around surfing in the brisk waters of the Pacific Ocean. 21,000 gallons of crude oil covers roughly 4 miles of Santa Barbara’s coast now, extending about 50 yards into the water.
Jobs, jobs, jobs. The economic stimulus is one purported advantage to the XL pipeline. During construction, proposed project spending would support approximately 42,100 jobs, directly and indirectly and around $2 billion in earnings throughout the US, according to the final SEIS. Despite different job creation estimates, any number will contribute significantly to the US gross domestic product, associating a huge economic growth with the construction of the proposed XL pipeline. (TransCanada estimates around 13,000 construction jobs and 7,000 manufacturing jobs, which is about 3 times higher than the State Department’s estimate.) In addition, the cost of paying for the Keystone XL project ($3.3 billion) would not be placed on the U.S. but on Keystone.
According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA), the industry and their operators have reduced the risk of hazardous materials transportation incidents with death or major injury by 4% every 3 years, and since 2002, they have reduced the risk of a pipeline spill with environmental consequences by an average of 5% per year.1
Still, there is more work to be done. Safety issues that the pipeline industry is aiming to fix include:
- Infrastructure: Repair obsolete pipeline infrastructure through a pipeline integrity management program and investigate new technologies that can detect pipeline risks.
- Improving human error and safety culture: Increase the focus on safety beyond compliance standards and evaluate the potential value of safety management systems.
- Adding secondary containment: Limit the spread of HAZMAT in the event of a failure in the primary container, and improve leak detection.
- Transparency: Increasing transparency for companies and their accountability
Check out the infographic below for a summary of all of these pros and cons:
All methods of transporting oil present various risks and benefits based on the available data. Explaining both sides of this coin allows us to assess each method’s impacts on our economy, environment, and public health. Through these assessments, we can make more informed decisions on what truly serves the nation’s interests. Oil and gas transport is a dangerous business, but all transportation industries are improving their management programs and increasing their regulations to provide citizens peace of mind and the safety they deserve. In light of ongoing issues, however, some would ask if these risks are even necessary.
For example, the growth of safer energy resources such as solar energy would significantly cut down the risks mentioned above in addition to providing jobs and stimulating the overall economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Solar Foundation, the growth in direct industry jobs for solar has outweighed oil and gas for the past 3 years. In 2014, new jobs created for the solar industry were more than twice the jobs created for the oil and gas industry. Based on 2014’s economics, Kepler Cheuvreux stated that all renewables are already more competitive than oil priced at $100 per barrel — This is because renewables have a higher net energy return on capital invested (EROCI).
As a reader and a citizen, it is important to know the pros and cons of the current activities taking place in our country today. We must be aware of loopholes that may be putting our states, cities, or counties into harm’s way, as well as recognize alternative energy sources and regulatory oversight that lessen the threats that oil extraction and transport pose to our health and environment.
1. These statistics are based from the Census Bureau analysis and Bureau of Transportation Statistics as of July 2012.