Analysis

Pipelines vs. trains: Which is better for moving oil?

Four oil-train derailments in one month — all with rail cars that exceed standards travelling at moderate speed. It raises the question: Is the risk of transporting so much oil by rail too high?

With 4 oil-train derailments in North America in past 3 weeks, pipeline-vs.-rail debate resurfaces

Fire erupted after a train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario this weekend, just weeks after a similar incident in the area. That's raised fresh questions about the safety of shipping oil by rail. (Transportation Safety Board)

There have been four oil-train accidents in the past month in North America, including two in Northern Ontario, one of which only recently stopped burning, near the town of Gogama.

These trains were travelling at moderate speeds, in some cases well under the 80 km/h speed limit, and the CPC-1232 tanker cars were sturdier, made of tougher stuff than the rail cars that exploded so tragically in Lac-Mégantic in 2013. The 1232s were supposed to be safer.

Still, in each derailment, the tanker cars caught fire.

For some, this raises questions about rail safety, train speeds and length, tanker-car standards and stabilizing the oil within the tankers. For others, it means we should be talking about pipelines again.

"Slowing down is one option," said Ian Naish, a former director of rail and pipeline investigations at the Transportation Safety Board of Canada.

"Shorter trains might be another option, but that will cost money. And then — dare I say it  —  another option is pipelines or some other mode of transportation."

It's time for senior industry and government leaders to sit down and say - what are we going to do about this?- Ian Naish, Naish Transportation Consulting

When it comes to pipelines versus rail, it's not comparing apples to apples.  When a pipeline leaks, more product is spilled, but it's not likely to explode. When a oil car derails, there is a higher chance of loss of life or destruction of property, but the spill is relatively contained. It really depends on what you're worried about — cost, CO2 emissions, safety, or the environment?

"This is a discussion we absolutely need to have," said Michal Moore, director of energy and environmental policy at the University of Calgary.

"It needs to start with safety, but also needs to consider what transfers and stores the highest volume of [oil] material at the lowest possible cost."

Cheaper option

Pipelines are certainly the cheaper option for shippers, but pipeline capacity has not kept up with North American oil production. The pipeline issue continues to be charged both in Canada and the United States because of concerns around environmental damage, climate change and oilsands development.

Moore doesn't believe that reducing pipeline capacity will reduce the use of crude oil.

"It's like saying we'll prevent congestion in an urban area by limiting the amount of lanes that cars can go down and discourage people from driving. It doesn't work, people just get in line and absorb the wait."

Moore feels that more robust standards need to be brought into place for both pipelines and rail, so that we as a society can feel more confident about the transportation of oil.

"Inspect every weld and every joint at regular intervals. And if it raises the cost of moving that material, so be it."

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