Is oil safer in pipelines than rail? Nope.

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Setting the record straight: pipelines spill much more crude oil than rail cars.

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Pipeline companies like to sell themselves as the safe alternative. Trains derail frequently, while pipelines seldom leak, they say. The team of smiling PR flacks that TransCanada has had on the road promoting its 4500 kilometre EnergyEast pipeline plan had the words down pat: Your community, your rivers, and your drinking water will be much safer if crude is shipped by pipeline rather than rail.

Of course, they never mentioned the huge increase in rail cars that will head back to Alberta from the Atlantic Coast, returning the poisonous and explosive solvents that are used to dilute tar sands bitumen so it will flow through the pipe.

But even without that, the facts show that pipelines spills cause more environmental damage than rail spills — because broken pipelines spill much more crude.

A report published this week by the International Energy Agency looked at 8 years of data from the U.S. Department of Transportation, from 2004 to 2012. It found that for each mile travelled, pipelines spill three times more oil than rail.

This confirms figures published by the Association of American Railroads (AAR), using raw data from the U.S. Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA). In the U.S. between 2002 and 2012, there were over 14 times as many crude spills from pipelines (1,849) as from rail cars (129). More seriously, pipelines spilled 19,926,540 gallons of of crude, compared to 95,268 gallons from rail — over 200 times as much.

(The AAR is obviously not an unbiased source, but so far no pipeline company has tried to refute the numbers.)

These figures overstate the case, because they don’t include the 2013 CPR train derailment that dumped 30,000 gallons in western Minnesota. Train spills are a serious issue — but in total, pipelines are far worse.

All this is on top of the damage that’s done to First Nations land and water by mining the bitumen, and the damage done to the global climate by refining and burning it. No matter how it’s carried, fossil fuel just isn’t safe.


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