Pipeline Opponents Ignore Risk of Rail Fatalities, Contamination

Commentary, Environment, Ian Madsen, Transportation

The cancellation of the Energy East pipeline project by TransCanada Corporation, citing delays caused by the regulatory process, newly lengthened and thickened by Ottawa, is emblematic of forces conspiring against rational energy and regulatory policy.

The Canadian economy, and its exports, are dependent on oil and gas, and the pipelines that transport them.  Billions of dollars in fossil fuel exports pay for nearly all the things Canada does not produce; Canada is a net importer of everything else.  The opponents of fossil fuels care not that opposing pipelines will damage Canadian exports and competitiveness; indeed, they may welcome a decline in economic growth and living standards as being conducive to lower domestic energy consumption.

Western nations in general have increased oil consumption very slowly in recent years.  Any carbon dioxide emissions which may contribute to possible global warming – and recent articles by climate modellers put those earlier scary models into question – have plateaued.  The only increases have come from natural gas, as it gains favour for electric power generation, at the expense of coal (pure carbon).

Yet, this is not enough to satisfy the Cataclysmic Global Warming lobby.  They wish to stop all new pipelines, and limit, then prohibit the production, sale, transport, and consumption of all fossil fuels, even clean-burning, lower-carbon-emitting, abundant, cheap natural gas.

There is a valid question to be asked about the safety of oil pipelines, with respect to both risk to people, and the environment; and with gas, with respect to people only (gas either escapes into the atmosphere, or explodes).  However, that question cannot be asked in isolation from alternatives:  rail or truck transport.

In Canada, there tend to be dozens of minor pipeline spills annually which are not considered emergencies.  In 2017, there has been only one serious oil products incident, of 200,000 litres of condensate in Strathcona County, Alberta, and three other substantial non-headline spills.  There was one in 2016, of 225,000 litres, of which all but 15,000 litres were collected.  Prior to that, in 2015, there were three, of 17,000 barrels of condensate in northern Alberta; 31,500 barrels of oil emulsion, in northern Alberta; and 100,000 barrels of oil, water, and gas emulsion in northern Alberta.  In 2014, there were two incidents in northern Alberta, of 70,000 barrels and 60,000 each.  In 2013, there was one incident, of between 400,000 and 600,000 litres of water, mixed with 1,000 barrels of oil.  Going back, the pattern repeats: one to five significant incidents annually, or none.  In every case, product collection and site remediation are done.

In contrast, large-scale truck transport is rare, costly and no safer than rail – which is far worse than pipeline. While releases of products tend to be much less per rail incident, there are far more incidents.  From the Canadian Transportation Safety Board:  In 2016, 108 accidents involved dangerous goods, down from 145 in 2015 and down from a five-year average of 141 and a ten-year average of 151.

A total of 63 main-track derailments occurred in 2016, an 18% decrease from the 2015 total of 77 and a 28% decrease from the five-year average of 88.  The reported dangerous goods leaker incidents totalled 30 in 2016; a 9% decrease from the 2015 total of 33 and a 59% decrease from the five-year average of 72.

There have been major regulatory changes bringing improved safety measures, including better rupture-resistant rail cars, yet rail car accidents far exceed pipelines’, every year.  One such incident, at Lac-Megantic in Quebec in 2013, killed 47 people.  Nearly all railways, at some point, run through populated areas, where there are switching, terminal, crossing, and other risks. Whereas pipelines are underground, rarely routed through cities or towns.

They also are far cheaper per unit of product moved, lowering cost for oil and gas producers, and for consumers, many of whom are low-income drivers and home-owners or -renters.  New pipelines being proposed to carry Western oil sands and fracking-generated liquids to the United States or Atlantic ports will be equipped with the latest monitoring and failsafe technology to prevent or mitigate spills, and new materials resistant to corrosion or shifts in ground.  The expansion of the TransMountain pipeline expansion is actually along existing, track-record-validated right-of-way to Burrard Inlet,

While railways have improved performance and safety, they still have far more incidents than pipeline companies do.  Our society will remain petroleum-based, in not just energy, but in plastics and other synthetic products, for the foreseeable future.  Safety can and should always be improved.  However, those who fight pipelines ignore the human-fatality risks of rail, perhaps intentionally so.