A Timely Primer on Transporting Crude Oil

As North American oil production has increased, so has demand for more pipeline capacity and railcars to move crude to refineries or export facilities. While energy independence is a national goal, the specter of more pipelines and unit trains carrying crude oil has spooked a large part of the American public.

As North American oil production has increased, so has demand for more pipeline capacity and railcars to move crude to refineries or export facilities. While energy independence is a national goal, the specter of more pipelines and unit trains carrying crude oil has spooked a large part of the American public.

Crude oil pipelines and railcars are frequently in the headlines. The Trump administration has waved the green flag for the controversial Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Members of Congress, including Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, are pushing for tougher federal laws governing crude oil by rail to protect communities along major rail lines

Unless you believe that the demand for gasoline and other products derived from crude oil will disappear soon, a fair question to ask is what is the safest way to transport crude oil. Not surprisingly, there is no easy answer.

James Conca, who is an environmental scientist, energy consultant and long-time member of the Sierra Club, wrote an informative piece for Forbes in 2014 that remains relevant today. Tellingly, his article is titled: “Pick Your Poison for Crude – Pipeline, Rail, Truck or Boat.” Which transportation mode is safest, he says, depends on what you value the most.

If human death and property destruction have the highest value, then it is “truck worse than train worse than pipeline worse than boat.” For spills, it is “truck worse than pipeline worse than rail worse than boat.” If environmental impact is the primary concern, then it’s “boat worse than pipeline worse than truck worse than rail.”

How crude oil is shipped may depend on the logistics of where it originates. Crude oil moves out of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota by rail in the absence of existing pipeline capacity. The Dakota Access pipeline will relieve some of the pressure to use rail, but not necessarily for crude oil intended for export to Asia Pacific markets, which still will need to make its way to West Coast trans-shipment facilities, such as the one proposed at the Port of Vancouver.

Conca said the vast majority of crude oil, natural gas and petroleum products in the United States and Canada are transported by pipelines. In 2014, crude-by-rail shipments accounted for less than 5 percent of all shipments. Undoubtedly that percentage has sharply increased, and so has the size of the trains.  For example, crude oil rail capacity in the Great Plains tripled in size in 2011, roughly equaling one third of the capacity of the Keystone pipeline.

Conca cites statistics showing From 1975 to 2012 there were shorter trains and fewer spills. Big spills were extremely rare. In 2013, he says, “more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents than was spilled in the previous 37 years.”

Because trains go through cities and towns – and their water sources, there has been growing concern and resistance to new facilities that refine, process or trans-ship crude oil. That resistance has spilled over to other fossil fuels as well.

Other factors influence whether crude oil is shipped by rail or pipeline. Because the number of U.S. refineries has shrunk in the wake of stricter environmental regulations, crude oil producers may have to choose the transportation mode that connects the source with the processor.

One of the main arguments for the Keystone pipeline was to connect the heavy tar sand crude oil from Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries that were capable of handling it. But railroads are more flexible with 140,000 miles of track compared to 57,000 miles of crude oil pipelines.

Economics play a big role. The Congressional Research Service says pipelines are much cheaper than rail to transport crude oil, costing as much as a third less per barrel. At the same time, it may be less expensive and take less time to build a crude-by-rail trans-shipment facility than permitting and building a major interstate pipeline.

Conca’s conclusion, which may unsettle people on all sides of the fossil fuel debate, is that, “Crude oil is moving around the world, around our country, around pristine wilderness, around our cities and towns. It’s going to keep moving and will undoubtedly increase during our new energy boom.” Put another way, you can’t have energy independence, at least in the immediate foreseeable future, without more crude oil pipelines and railcars.

Crude oil can be a big mess when spilled. Spills and leaks are inevitable and statistically impossible to eliminate. Human impact, environmental degradation, property damage and public health effects will occur. The economic cost is significant, if incalculable. 

“In the end,” Conca says, “all of these transportation modes can be made safer if stricter regulatory controls and modern technologies are emplaced.”  It also means equipping local communities with the tools to deal quickly and effectively with crude oil spills and conflagrations. That will take increased public education, continuous citizen pressure and relentless political perseverance. It would be worth the effort.