Pipelines safest way to ship oil

The recent rupture of a Nexen oilsands pipeline southeast of Fort McMurray has stoked concerns about the safety of oil and gas pipelines.

Pipelines are a critical piece of Canada’s energy infrastructure, moving more than 2.4 billion barrels of oil and gas in 2013 alone.

A recent study from the Fraser Institute focused on the number of occurrences or accidents per million barrels of oil and gas transported. Results showed that pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and gas.

Fewer incidents

Every year from 2003 to 2013, pipelines experienced fewer occurrences per million barrels of oil equivalent transported than did rail.

Overall, rail had 0.227 occurrences per million barrels compared to 0.049 for pipelines. In other words, rail is about 4.5 times more likely to experience an occurrence.

Data from the National Transportation Safety Board calls into question the often worst-case scenario rhetoric that surrounds pipeline debates: 73 per cent of pipeline occurrences result in spills of less than one square metre, and 16 per cent of occurrences result in no spill whatsoever.

The vast majority of pipeline occurrences, more than 80 per cent, don’t occur in the actual line pipe. Rather, they happen in facilities that are likely to have secondary containment mechanisms and procedures. Perhaps the most telling statistic regarding

pipeline safety is that 99 per cent of pipeline occurrences from 2003 to 2013 didn’t damage the environment.

Ignoring the facts

Transporting oil and gas by rail has been booming in the absence of new pipelines. According to the Energy Information Administration, annual exports of oil by rail to the United States in 2010 amounted to 42,000 barrels. By 2014 it had increased to 42 million barrels.

While pipelines may attract much of the attention, rail is notwithout its share

of accidents. A string of events thisyear led to new regulations, which may provide little additional benefit, as many of the newly required safety measures existed before the Lac- Mégantic tragedy.

In Canada and the United States, current oil and natural gas production necessitates the expansion of our transportation capacity. Yet proposed pipelines linger in regulatory limbo, facing stiff opposition and little political support, best exemplified by the premiers’ national energy strategy, which managed to barely gloss over Canada’s pipeline conundrum. On the mode of safely transporting oil and gas, the choice is clearly the safer one - pipelines.

Kenneth P. Green and Taylor Jackson are co-authors of the Fraser Institute study Safety in the Transportation of Oil and Gas: Pipelines or Rail? Available at fraserinstitute.org