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Oil by Rail Vs. Pipelines: Comparing the Safety Records of Both

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In a misguided attempt to push for approval of the Keystone Pipeline, Vancouver's Fraser Institute recently published a study entitled "Intermodal Safety in the Transport of Oil." The "study" is, in fact, a recycled version of an already discredited report originally released in the United States by the Manhattan Institute as part of its attempt to promote pipelines as the only safe mode of transport.

The Manhattan Institute and the Fraser Institute both believe disparaging railroads increases the chances of approval of the Keystone Pipeline by removing its only viable alternative. This is a false assumption, not simply because their facts are wrong, but also because the reality is that the dramatic surge in crude oil production will require increases in both railroad and pipeline capacity.

In the report, the Fraser Institute tries to make two broad points: that pipelines are both a safer and more environmentally "friendly" way to transport crude oil than railroads. Fraser is wrong on both accounts but in making their thinly supported political attack they miss the real truth:

Both pipelines and railroads deliver better than 99.5% of their crude oil product safely. They are both safe.

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Pipelines deliver their product to fixed end points, while delivery by railroads is more flexible and delivers product to where it is needed. The big environmental issue for pipelines, and the one that Fraser does not want to acknowledge, is that when pipelines have a problem it is almost always a big one. This was demonstrated most recently in North Dakota where a pipeline leaked over 20,600 barrels (865,200 gallons). This, the largest inland pipeline spill in recent US history, was not discovered until a farmer noticed the oil in his fields. Even the pipeline company cannot explain how long the leak was active, let alone what caused it.

In comparison, when a railcar is involved in accident, the environmental impact is almost always limited. The capacity of today's tank car is between 25-30,000 gallons (just over 700 barrels) and the overwhelming majority of rail spills reported by the Department of Transportation involve amounts of less than 5 gallons.

The Fraser report also attempts to condemn the use of moving oil by rail by claiming higher injury and fatality rates, but they do so with manipulated and unrelated statistics - combining the accidents rates from non-petroleum products and going so far as to inflate fatality numbers by including rail trespasser and grade crossing accidents. An unbiased review of related events actually shows that rail has a superior safety record to pipelines when moving crude oil.

The Fraser Institute advertises a "rigorous peer review" of its work under the slogan "if it matters--measure it." By any measure this report comes up short. The public deserves better.