Dec. 30, 2013, Casselton, N.D: An oil train crashed into a grain car, causing explosions and a fire and forcing the partial evacuation of the town. No one was hurt. 2July 6, Lac-Mé­gan­tic, Que­bec: An un­at­tend­ed oil train rolled away, crash­ed
12 Feb 2020

Pipelines vs road transports: Controversial debates around fuel transport

"Latest Canadian Pacific Rail derailment spilled 5 times as much oil as the Husky pipeline leak in 2016"


Currently the issue of pipelines is a controversial topic in North America. Several protest movements against Canadian and US pipeline projects have been raging for years, and one of the concerns is the safety of pipelines vs road transport.



The main concern among environmentalists and sometimes also fire services is that pipelines transport a lot of fuel per minute and that an undetected leak could lead to very large consequences before anyone can respond. The fact that pipelines often run across pristine wilderness areas that are difficult to travel by road also makes pipeline response difficult to plan for many fire services, unless they have agreements with an army base or other facilities with large helicopters to carry them to the spill site.

However, with more and more developments being made in pipeline technology, wireless monitoring systems and the ability to remotely shut off valves upstream of  the leaking pipeline section, many now refer to statistics where traditional road transport by road or railway surpasses pipelines in destructive environmental impact. 

With so much product transported today being in the form of crude (unrefined oil)  the issue is even more complex.

The fire services have a reasonable chance to deal with a gasoline, refined oil or natural gas fire, whereas a fire in large amounts of crude requires specialized knowledge and equipment many rural fire brigades simply lack. Therefore, a derailment of a train carrying large amounts of crude can have enormous consequences, not just for the environment, but for human settlements as well.

Given that trains and tank trucks generally travel closer to towns and city centers, many now argue that pipelines is the safer way to go, especially when transporting crude oil, which effectively often cannot be extinguished if it catches on fire.

With shut off valves, and perhaps also mounted extinguishing systems right near the pipeline valves (where leaks most often occur) pipelines could develop into very safe systems, especially if legislation puts enough pressure on energy companies to implement them.


At the same time, by pulling away from traditional transport by roads and railroads, we would be further removing the potential problems from the realm of possible response by our public fire brigades, leaving us more in the hands of the energy corporations - to deal with or not to deal with.


Traditionally, one would usually look at the argument from two different angles:

- Road transport accidents usually stood for smaller releases of fuel per reported incident

- Pipelines, although usually releasing more fuel per incident, often stood for statistically less incidents per unit of fuel transported


An infrastructure planner would then traditionally make a decision - traditional transport or pipe line - based on the sensitivity of the land, the distance travelled, the amount of risk for the communities effected, budget, public opinion, etc.

With roads and railroads already enjoying some protection from fuel leaks and already often being designed to traverse less sensitive land areas, it was perhaps traditionally often easier to make to make the decision to go by rail or road. Cheaper initial costs, and at least an apparent lower risk.  

Add to that, crude oil being much less commonly transported in the past, pipelines were even more expensive to build when you had to build one for gasoline, one for refined oil, another one for diesel, and perhaps also another one for natural gas. With crude oil, you only have to budget for one pipe, and it can potentially take the crude all the way to the refinery, wherever that may be.

Crude oil transport is therefore ´cheaper´ in some way, at least not counting the fact that you also spend money and energy moving impurities, perhaps even gravel - like in the case of the crude oil extracted from the Canadian tar sand fields.  Add the safety measures required to move crude oil with a reasonable amount of risk, the equation is less simple. 

Ask the residents of the Quebec town of Lac Megantic what they think of reasonable risk after the train derailment and crude oil explosion in 2013 that claimed 47 lives and destroyed their town center - and you´ll likely get a different response than from your average backwoods prairie community town council. 

HazMat incidents in rural communities are simply such a rare events that statistically, the risk for any given community is so low that city planners can almost ignore the possibility. Yet, statistically, and from a national point of view, hazmat incidents do occur frequently enough - just not frequently enough that sufficient resources are set aside in the budget to train and equip every small community  for something that likely will never happen at that particular location.

The facts are: Crude oil spills, and other hazmat incidents are very rare. However, when they do occur, it is usually very difficult for rural fire services to deal with the consequences. That puts us at risk when they do happen, and with more and more pipelines being built, the response is often no longer even performed by the public fire brigades. 


Nowadays however: with better pipeline technology, the statistics for released amounts of fuel may possibly be starting to be more favourable for the arguments towards more pipelines and fewer road transports. 

An article on a train derailment covered by the CBC last week, quotes the Saskatchewan government claiming that  an estimated 1.2 million litres of oil leaked from a Canadian Pacific Railway train that derailed near the hamlet of Guernsey.

"That's less than the estimated 1.5 million litres that is believed to have leaked in a separate train derailment, also near Guernsey, last December. But it's still five times the amount of oil spilled during the 2016 Husky Energy pipeline disaster near Maidstone, Saskachewan", says the article. 

At least 12 of the train cars caught fire, according to the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency. Drone footage showed at least two large pools of spilled oil staining the ground next to the railway. 

According to the province, CP has hired contractors and environmental consultants to develop a remediation plan. 

"It is not known exactly how long the cleanup will take to complete but can be expected to take up to several months," the government spokesperson said. 

CP has confirmed the train was using a newly built type of tank car meant to have better puncture resistance than the ones that exploded in the deadly Lac-Mégantic, Que., train derailment in 2013.


Cover photo: (Above)

Dec. 30, 2013, Casselton, N.D: An oil train crashed into a grain car, causing explosions and a fire and forcing the partial evacuation of the town. No one was hurt. 2July 6, Lac-Mé­gan­tic, Que­bec: An un­at­tend­ed oil train rolled away, crash­ed