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Four recent oil-train derailments--two in the United States and two in Canada accompanied by yet another drive-by rhetorical smear of the Keystone XL pipeline by U.S. President Barack Obama--have re-invigorated the debate over how Canadians and Americans transport oil.
The University of Calgary's School of Public Policy has put out an important report that sheds light on an under-discussed dimension of Canada's energy export challenge: the time factor. At this point, most people (we hope) are aware that Canada faces physical bottlenecks in the transport of its energy resources to global markets.
Yet another train derailment involving petroleum products has re-invigorated the debate over how we transport oil in Canada. Reflexive opposition to pipelines flies in the face of the data, which shows that pipelines are safer modes of transport than railways or roadways. Environmentalists engaging in anti-pipeline crusades risk causing more harm than good as their pipeline-stalling actions divert oil transport to rail and road that would otherwise be transported more safely by pipeline.
We examined data pertaining to the safety of three modes of oil transport in North America and found that on an apples-to-apples basis, transporting a billion tons of oil over a mile of distance by pipeline has a very low likelihood of leakage -- less than one incident per billion ton-miles. The risk of a leak by rail is twice as high.