Pipeline Alternatives: Trucks, Trains, Ships, Oh My!

Last week, I wrote about the natural gas pipelines that pass through Ohio and safety hazards, if any, they pose to the environment.

It became clear to me after combing through articles upon articles about spills and construction mishaps that pipelines can dangerous to humans and ecosystems alike.

Take, for example, the Rover pipeline, which crosses through 18 Ohio counties. Construction is nearing completion, but the pipeline has already caused problems within the past year. In April, two million gallons (you read this right–gallons) of drilling fluid spilled into Ohio’s wetlands in Stark and Richland counties.

Crews clean up after the Rover pipeline spilled gallons of drilling fluid in Stark County. Photo courtesy NRDC

The pipeline, though, is already transporting about one billion cubic feet of gas per day in the areas where it is operational. Once it is fully in service, it will transport the gas to markets in Ohio, West Virginia and Canada.

The question I want answered here is simple: isn’t there a better way?

In my research, I came across a few oil and natural gas-advocate websites that claim pipelines are the “most reliable, safest ways” to transport gas. But what are the other ways? After doing some digging, I found there are several other ways oil is transported both in the U.S. and across the world — and I’ll let you be the judge as to whether this claim about pipeline safety seems right.

Truck

Tanker trucks are one of the common ways petroleum is transported. StudentEnergy.com, a self-described database for energy information for students, notes this option provides the most flexibility for oil transport, and is many times the last step in the process of delivering petroleum to markets.

Safety hazards are apparent for this option, though. A tanker truck accident could result in oil spills or explosions — in May, a truck carrying oil crashed and burned in Mobile, Alabama, killing the driver and shutting down the highway for hours. Pollution is also an environmental concern.

Train

Carrying oil by train–referred to as ‘crude-by-rail’ or CBR for short–is a long-distance alternative to pipelines, but many say pipelines are far safer. The controversial Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota made headlines last year when protesters fought to stop its construction over historical and environmental concerns. One of the main reasons it was proposed, though, was the safety hazards and high costs associated with CBR transportation of gas. In a 2017 study, Carnegie Mellon economics professor Karen Clay found that air pollution costs were nearly twice as large for rail transport than would have been for pipelines in North Dakota.

Crude-by-rail transport, also known as a “bomb train.” Photo courtesy NRDC

Besides emissions, another, and perhaps the most dangerous, safety hazard of transporting oil by train is the effects of accidents, derailments and explosions. In fact, for that reason, trains carrying crude oil are often nicknamed “bomb trains.” Think tank Sightline Institute lists ten explosions in two years from 2014 to 2015. In June 2013, a train carrying petroleum derailed and exploded in a small town in Quebec,  killing 47 people as they slept. Furthermore, Canada’s Fraser Institute concluded in a 2015 study that transporting gas through pipelines is 4.5 times safer than by train.

Still, train transportation of oil benefits the rail industry, and there are little to no construction costs compared to pipelines. Due to the capital costs of pipelines, CBR transport is considered more economically efficient–but do its safety risks pose a greater cost?

Boat

This final common pipeline alternative applies when land transportation is not available. Oil transport by ship–crude-by-barge (CBB)–is regarded as the most cost-effective way of transport compared to other methods. In a column for The Maritime Executive, senior editor Jack O’Connell touts the “compelling” economics of CBB, writing that barges are 20-35% less expensive than pipelines.  In addition, barges can carry larger amounts of petroleum than trucks and trains.

Just like all of the options, though, transportation by ship has its environmental concerns. A report described in a 2016 Seattle Times article cites concerns with both barges and tankers transporting oil–especially when carrying diluted bitumen (dilbit), an oil thinned for transport, but actually thick and difficult to clean out of water environments.

Conclusion

After exploring alternatives to pipelines, I’m not sure whether I can conclude that one option is safer than another. When deciding the best way to transport oil in a region, it essentially comes down to cost and convenience. It leads me to the question of what safer, more environmentally friendly energy options could be used instead of oil, which would eliminate the need for pipelines and their alternatives altogether–but that’s another discussion for another time.

 

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