OHS Canada Magazine

Pipelines safer than rail for transportation of crude: Fraser Institute

October 15, 2018
By Jeff Cottrill

The debate over what is considered the safest method of transporting oil is nothing new. The various stakeholders — depending on their political agenda and interests at stake — all have different views on the issue. For The Fraser Institute, the conservative-leaning think tank has already cast its vote with a report that it released in August 2015. Safety in the Transportation of Oil and Gas: Pipelines or Rail? concludes that transporting oil and gas by pipeline is safer than carrying it by rail, as rail shipments of oil and gas are about 4.5 times more likely to experience accidents than pipelines are.

The 14-page report is co-written by Dr. Kenneth P. Green, the Institute’s senior director of natural-resources studies, and Taylor Jackson, its policy analyst. “Generally speaking, pipelines and rail transport are generally safe,” Dr. Green says. “Ninety-nine per cent or better of everything that goes into the system at one end will be delivered safely at the other.”

While people are right to be concerned about the safety of either mode, “there is a small risk of error or accident, but a very large quantity being moved; that means we see what are actually quite rare events, but we see them very visibly,” Dr. Green explains.

The report also concludes that more than 70 per cent of pipeline incidents spill no more than one cubed metre of oil and that 83 per cent of spills occur within facilities that have secondary containment mechanisms, rather than during transit in lined pipe.

“I would argue for letting the market do what it does best, which is determine where to move the given volume of oil or gas,” Dr. Green says. “What the market tells us is that it would rather move oil and gas by pipeline than rail; otherwise, we wouldn’t have companies so aggressively pursuing the building of pipeline systems.”

Not everybody buys into Dr. Green’s and Jackson’s conclusions. Eoin Madden, Vancouver-based climate campaigner with non-profit protection group The Wilderness Committee, called the report “completely irrelevant and misleading” in an interview with Metro News on the day of its release.

“If British Columbians don’t want this oil coming through our communities, it doesn’t matter if it is by line or train,” Madden reportedly told the paper, adding that the either/or scenario was “a horrendous choice to put before the people of British Columbia.”

Asked about the possibility of eliminating the risk entirely by relying less on oil and more on renewable energy sources like wind, electricity or solar power, Dr. Green said he believed that such alternatives were currently implausible.

“You can make that argument of substitution,” he said, “and that is a different discussion, because then it is a question of, ‘Are you willing to pay for it?’” Vehicle electrification is too expensive and unpopular, he said, while hydrocarbons are vital to human life.

“In the big picture, the world chemistry is the chemistry of hydrocarbons. You either build up chemicals and things from natural gas, or you break them down for oil, and that is where it comes from,” Dr. Green says. “Hydrocarbons provide so much of the things we use in our daily life, and including the food we eat, which is raised with fertilizers which derive from hydrocarbons.”

Dr. Green and Jackson came to their conclusions through data about incidents involving transportation of dangerous goods from 2003 to 2013 from several Canadian and American sources, including the United States State Department, Transport Canada and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

“We live in a world where we try to minimize risk,” Dr. Green says. “But getting rid of it entirely is not possible for humanity at this point.”

Jeff Cottrill was the former editorial assistant of OHS Canada.

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