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When pipeline is safer than rail

Author : Alan Franck, Editor, HazardEx

05 April 2013

The recent leak in the old Exxon Mobil Pegasus pipeline near Mayflower, Arkansas, is being used as a stick with which to beat supporters of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which if built would deliver oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. Opponents of Keystone say that Pegasus was delivering heavy crude from the Canadian oil sands to Texas, similar to the oil Keystone will transport.

These opponents say that oil sands crude is more corrosive to pipelines than is other oil, and that this made the Pegasus leak (and future Keystone leaks) inevitable. Oil experts refute that claim. 

The Wall Street Journal points out that Pegasus was built in the 1940s, and about half of America's 2.3 million miles of pipeline were built more than 40 years ago. The best way to minimise leaks, it says, is to replace the USA’s ageing network with modern pipelines such as the one planned for the Keystone XL, which use technology that instantly recognises leaks and immediately shuts down oil flow.

The Journal also points out that in the same week as the Keystone spill, a Canadian Pacific Railway train carrying crude to Chicago derailed in western Minnesota, spilling about 15,000 gallons. 

The train crash illustrates one economic reality of the US shale drilling boom, which is that energy companies have turned to shipping by rail as pipeline capacity has  been filled. The volume of oil transported by US rail has surged to 233,811 carloads in 2012 from 9,500 as recently as 2008.

Rail is not the safest way to transport oil, however. Journal reporters recently analysed federal data and found that railroad-related oil incidents are soaring, with 112 oil spills reported from 2010 to 2012 compared to 10 in the previous three years. The spills are small compared to the volumes that trains are carrying, and railways are essential in areas that aren't connected to pipelines.

By contrast, oil pipelines carry far more crude and have fewer leaks per mile. They also present fewer safety risks than the 2008 explosions when Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil cars caught fire in Oklahoma, requiring evacuations. "Railroads travel through population centres. The safest form of transport for this type of product is a pipeline," former Clinton National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall told Reuters after the Minnesota accident.

No form of energy production or transport is without risk, so the issue is how to do it as safely and efficiently as possible. These two oil spills in fact show the need to proceed with Keystone XL.



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