Safety questions persist, crude oil transportation modes show differing records
As the national debate over the safety of crude oil transportation continues to swirl, two high-profile North Dakota incidents illustrate the risks associated with moving the commodity.
More than 865,000 gallons of crude oil spewed out of an underground Tesoro pipeline near Tioga last September, causing millions of dollars in damage and requiring cleanup that may take years.
A few months later, a train derailment outside Casselton spilled about 475,000 gallons of oil and prompted an explosion and partial evacuation of the small town. No one was killed or injured, but local officials agreed the accident was a “near miss.”
Officials representing both the pipeline and rail industries say their method is the safest way to transport crude oil. But while federal data analyzed by Forum News Service confirms that crude oil spills account for a fraction of a percent of the amount shipped by rail or pipeline every year, neither trains nor pipelines operate without risks.
Pipeline operators reported almost 1,900 crude oil spills nationwide between 2003 and 2013, or roughly once every other day, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and a majority were caused by corrosion or equipment issues. Those incidents resulted in roughly 21 million gallons of oil being spilled, and in five fatalities and 11 injuries.
Meanwhile, train incidents spilled more oil in 2013 — 1.15 million gallons — than the four previous decades combined, according to a McClatchy News analysis. And that doesn’t include the crash in Quebec that killed 47 people last summer, a tragedy that heightened concerns over moving crude oil by trains.
Lawmakers in North Dakota and Washington, D.C., are pushing for more pipeline construction, which they say can ease the amount of crude oil moved on the tracks. But they acknowledge that rail transportation will play a heavy role in the energy development that’s propelled North Dakota to its status as the country’s No. 2 oil-producing state.
The relative lack of injuries or deaths associated with a crude oil pipeline spill can at least be partially explained by the rare instances of fires or explosions. Fires occurred in 22 different oil spills since 2003 — or 1 percent of the time — and just four of those resulted in an explosion, according to the PHMSA data.
None of those fires took place in North Dakota, but three of them happened in neighboring Minnesota. That includes an incident that killed two Enbridge Energy workers in Clearbrook, Minn., in November 2007.
Despite such incidents, most say pipelines are a safe way to transport oil, and spills are extremely rare.
“We’re going to be using energy,” said Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, who advocates for pipelines. “We might as well think of the safest way of transporting it.”
Furchtgott-Roth cited accident data compiled by the U.S. Department of State — in its review for the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline — to make her case that pipelines are by far the safest method.
The State Department’s analysis shows that, for every million ton-miles transported, pipelines spilled more barrels of crude than trains every year except one between 2002 and 2009.
But over that time period, more spills per million ton-miles shipped were recorded on rail. And between 2002 and 2012, more injuries and fatalities occurred on the tracks than from pipeline accidents.
“The data is just blindingly clear,” Furchtgott-Roth said.
Many of the drawbacks of both rail and pipeline are inherent to their design. Pipelines are purposely routed and buried through more rural areas, whereas trains run through towns that sprung up around the tracks.
With those trains, “the containers are moving, and they’re moving with other traffic,” Furchtgott-Roth said. “If there’s an incident, it’s liable to hurt other people too. Plus at the end of it, the container has to come back empty.”
“With a pipeline, you don’t have any of these problems," she added.
Spills add up
Still, pipeline spills aren’t without costs. Between 2010 and 2013, pipelines cost operators more than $700 million in environmental remediation, and more than $1.5 billion in total property damage, according to the PHMSA data.
Some of the most notable examples include a July 2010 Enbridge Energy pipeline rupture that spilled almost 850,000 gallons into a creek that flows into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Crews are still cleaning up the oil from the waterway.
Another in Arkansas, this time operated by Exxon Mobil, spilled 210,000 gallons and prompted the evacuation of almost two dozen homes in spring 2013.
Last fall’s Tioga spill resulted in $5.4 million in total property damage, according to the PHMSA data.
However, most of the crude oil spills over the past few years were contained on the operator’s property, PHMSA data shows. And many crude oil pipeline spills are relatively small. About a third of the nearly 1,900 spills reported between 2003 and 2013 were a barrel — 42 gallons — or less.
‘Apples to oranges’
Industry officials say pipelines have improved their safety record over the years. Pipelines spilled about 42 percent less crude oil in the last three years than they did between 2003 and 2005, according to the PHMSA data.
Technological advances, like leak detection and inspection systems as well as pipe coating to prevent corrosion, are aiding that shift, industry officials said. Paul Oleksa, a pipeline safety consultant in Ohio, added that the introduction of one-call systems has reduced the number of pipes being punctured by third-party diggers.
“They’re so much safer than anything that we’ve had over the years,” Oleksa said. But that doesn’t mean most spills aren’t preventable. More than 80 percent of crude oil pipeline spills in the last 10 years were the result of corrosion, equipment failure, incorrect operation or material and weld failures, according to the PHMSA data.
The Association of Oil Pipe Lines points to data showing those issues occur less often today. Instances of corrosion failures in liquid pipelines, for instance, decreased by 79 percent between 2001 and 2012, according to AOPL.
“That reflects a lot of the work that pipeline operators do to improve safety,” said John Stoody, AOPL’s vice president of government and public relations.
But many aging pipes are still in operation. The average age of a pipeline involved in a spill between 2010 and 2013 was between 40 and 50 years, according to the PHMSA data. Stoody said a pipe’s age is only one potential factor in spills.
“What we don’t want to do is replace pipe that’s okay just because it’s of a certain age,” Stoody said. “We want to apply our maintenance budgets to where the actual problems are.”
While acknowledging that “there’s always room for improvement,” Enbridge spokeswoman Katie Haarsager said the company often goes “beyond its minimum regulatory requirements."
Brigham McCown, a former administrator of PHMSA, said comparing the safety records of pipelines and railroads is “apples to oranges.”
“I don’t want to get into which one is safer, because they’re both very safe,” he said.
‘More of both’
As energy production soars in North Dakota and elsewhere, trains have become the primary mover of crude oil out of the Bakken — an anomaly in the transportation of oil nationwide, and one that state lawmakers and regulators never saw coming.
North Dakota’s top oil regulator, Lynn Helms, previously said as much as 90 percent of the oil production here could be moved by rail this year.
The amount of oil moved by pipeline out of the Williston Basin steadily increased in the few years leading up to 2013, when oil prices and market conditions helped push more oil to the tracks.
And as oil production increased, so did the frequency of pipeline spills here. While there was just one reported crude oil pipeline spill in North Dakota in 2009, there were 10 last year, according to PHMSA.
But since the Casselton wreck brought the potential dangers of moving crude oil by rail to the attention of the state and nation, lawmakers are pushing for more oil to be moved by pipeline.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., acknowledged that trains will continue to play a large role in crude oil transportation, but advocated for a better “mix” of trains, pipelines and trucks.
“We can’t try to move all of this capacity by rail,” Hoeven said. “It creates too much congestion, obviously you have more accidents.”
Hoeven has been particularly vocal about approving the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which wouldn’t run through North Dakota but would transport about 100,000 barrels of Bakken crude per day. Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline would move about 225,000 barrels per day out of the Bakken region to Clearbrook on its way to Superior, Wis.
Josh Mogerman, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the debate over pipeline and rail is a “false choice.”
“The industry wants more of both,” he said. “Not one or the other.”
As pipeline capacity lagged behind the explosive growth of oil production in the Bakken oil region, about a dozen rail facilities were built in the matter of a few years in order to get oil to markets.
Oil producers have found that trains have distinct advantages over pipeline, including their relative speed and an ability to quickly shift where oil is shipped, including places that pipelines don’t currently reach. And the extra cost of shipping by train rather than pipeline can be mitigated if oil prices allow.
Wayde Schafer, conservation organizer at the North Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club, said the only real solution to crude oil transportation concerns is reducing reliance on fossil fuels.
“All forms of transporting the oil are putting the environment and the public at risk,” he said.