What Ever Happened to Safety First

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Appeared in the Washington Times, Aug 19, 2015

Debates over oil pipelines seem to be never-ending. The quintessential example being that of the Keystone XL pipeline, which has languished in regulatory limbo for more than 2,500 days.

It appears that this saga may be coming to an end in the next few days or weeks. Recent reports suggest that President Obama is set to finally veto the pipeline, officially ending an almost seven-year battle.

In assessing Keystone XL, let’s ignore the effect that indefinite inaction has had on  America’s relationship with its greatest ally, largest trading partner, and largest provider of energy, and the economic benefits and jobs the pipeline would create. Let’s also ignore the positive effect that securing a long-term supply of Canadian crude would have displacing oil currently supplied by the likes of Venezuela.

Instead let’s focus on one thing: safety, both for Americans and the environment.

Environmental activists and pipeline opponents will have you believe that pipelines such as Keystone XL are a disaster waiting to happen. But the rhetoric doesn’t match reality.

In a recent analysis, we used Canadian data to determine which was safer for transporting oil and gas: rail or pipelines. The study found that in every year from 2003 to 2013, pipelines had fewer releases per million barrels of oil equivalents transported.

Overall, rail was found to be more than 4.5 times more likely to have an occurrence when transporting oil and gas compared to pipelines.

In addition, we found that more than four out of five pipeline occurrences don’t take place in the actual line pipe. Instead they occur in facilities, which may have secondary containment mechanisms and procedures. And less than one percent of pipeline occurrences result in some form of environmental damage.

The evidence from Canada is clear. Pipelines are the safer way to transport oil and gas.

This result is in line with previous analyses centered on the United States. An analysis conducted by Diana Furchtgott-Roth of the Manhattan Institute compared the safety of transporting oil and gas by pipelines, rail and road. Her analysis found that transporting oil and gas by road and rail resulted in higher incident rates per billion ton miles of product transported compared to pipelines. In addition, road and rail incidents were associated with higher rates of fatalities and hospitalizations in comparison to pipelines.

Overall, the analysis concluded that pipelines were the best way to ensure oil and gas arrives safely at its destination.

The State Department came to similar conclusions in their review of Keystone XL. It also concluded rail has a higher number of releases per ton-mile compared to pipelines, and although pipelines release larger volumes per ton-mile, this could by somewhat offset by the increased likelihood of spills if the oil is moved by rail.

More importantly, however, the State Department found that moving the 830,000 barrels per day (intended for Keystone XL) by rail would potentially lead to an additional 49 injuries and six fatalities per year.

The result of governmental foot-dragging on Keystone has been a dramatic increase in the amount of oil shipped by rail. According to the EIA, over the last five years, annual exports of oil from Canada to the U.S. increased from 42 thousand barrels in 2010 to just under 42 million barrels in 2014.

This trend is only going to continue. The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers projects that in the absence of more pipeline infrastructure, shipments of Canadian crude could increase from about 185,000 barrels per day in 2014 to between 500,000 and 600,000 barrels per day in 2018.

As kids, our parents taught us to think about safety first. But allowing proposed pipeline projects to linger, and oil to be transported by other means, poses unnecessary risk.
So much for safety first.

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