As a recent fire and explosion on a train carrying Bakken crude oil in North Dakota prompts new scrutiny of how oil is shipped through Montana and other states, recent studies from Canadian and American think tanks show that pipelines offer the safest method of oil transport.
“After reviewing available data on the safety of different oil-transport modes, we conclude that the evidence is clear: transporting oil by pipeline is safe and environmentally friendly,” stated the Canadian Frasier Institute in an October 2013 report.
“Furthermore, pipeline transportation is safer than transportation by road, rail, or barge, as measured by incidents, injuries, and fatalities.”
On December 30, a BNSF Railway train carrying Bakken crude oil struck another train that had derailed near Casselton, North Dakota. The ensuing fire and explosion engulfed 10 oil tanker cars, sent flames over 100 feet into the air, and spilled 400,000 gallons of oil according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
Given that the accident happened in a rural area, no one was injured. However, the incident prompted the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to issue warnings to shippers about the potential increased volatility of oil from Montana and North Dakota.
Problems with shipping Bakken crude via rail are leading to renewed calls for the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The Keystone would carry oil from both the Bakken region and the Alberta tar sands further north — passing through Eastern Montana — straight to refineries on the gulf coast, but remains in limbo as President Barack Obama refuses to approve its construction.
Keystone is the target of fierce opposition from left-wing environmental groups who claim any oil pipeline brings significant environmental and safety risks.
However, the data from the Frasier Institute and also data from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research suggests that railrods offers far more risks than pipelines when it comes to shipping oil. The Frasier Institute found that railroad workers involved in crude shipments were 30 times more likely to suffer an injury requiring hospitalization than workers on oil pipelines.
“U.S. data on incident, injury, and fatality rates for pipeline, road, and rail for the 2005 to 2009 period (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,” the Frasier Institute wrote.
The Frasier Institute also found that the overall number of incidents annually per billion ton miles of oil moved was 0.6 for pipelines, while railroads had 2 incidents per billion ton miles moved.
The Manhattan Institute, when looking just at spills and fires, found in a study released in June of 2013 that rail shipments were three times more likely than pipeline shipments to suffer a spill or fire. The Frasier Institute noted that resistance to pipeline building — often by environmental groups — is leading to more oil being transported in ways that are actually less environmentally safe.
“For North America to realize the massive economic benefits from the development of those oil sands, the transport conundrum must be solved,” wrote the Frasier Institute. “At present, resistance to pipeline transport is sending oil to market by modes of transport that pose highers risks of spills and personal injuries such as rail or road transport.”
The incident in Casselton, ND is just the latest in a string of rail incidents involving Bakken crude oil.
Last November, a train carrying Bakken crude to the Gulf Coast derailed and set off fires. In October, a Bakken crude train derailed and caught fire in Alberta prompting the evacuation of nearby residents. However, the worst incident occurred in July when a Bakken crude train exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.