The Dangers of Transporting Fossil Fuels

Dangers of Transporting Fossil Fuels: A pipeline burns after an allision with tug boat Shanon E. Setton, near Bayou Perot 30 miles south of New Orleans, March 13, 2013. The Coast Guard is working with federal, state and local agencies in response to this incident to ensure the safety of responders and contain and clean up any oil that is leaking. (U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans)Recent events illustrate that fossil fuels cannot be safely transported. According to a Manhattan Institute report, petroleum production in North America is now nearly 18 million barrels a day, and could climb to 27 million barrels a day by 2020. The recent deadly explosion of rail cars carrying oil highlights the dangers associated with shipping petroleum. There are also very real risks associated with the transportation of fossil fuels, whether by train, truck, tanker, or pipe.


The shipping of fossil fuels by rail now accounts for only 3 percent of oil and gas shipments in the U.S., but these figures are rising dramatically. The Association of American Railroads reports that between 2008 and 2011 the total share of oil and gas rail shipments grew dramatically, from 2 percent of all carloads to 11 percent. As reported in the Washington Post, North America is increasingly shipping oil by train. Since 2009, the number of train cars carrying crude oil has increased nearly 20 times, to an estimated 200,000 in 2012. The Canadian Railway Association estimates that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada’s tracks in 2013, up from 500 carloads in 2009.

Rail incidents release an average of 83,745 gallons of petroleum per year. The shipping of fossil fuels by rail shows an incident rate of 2.08 per billion ton miles per year. The fatality rate for operator personnel and the general public between 2005 and 2009,  averaged 2.4 people per year. The average spill volume of petroleum products shipped by rail is 3,504 gallons per billion ton-miles.

The tragic explosion of oil bearing rail cars early in July underscores the risks associated with transportation by rail. The explosion of oil cars that decimated the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 15 people, with dozens more still unaccounted for. At least 30 buildings were destroyed in the center of town, including the town’s library, irreplaceable archives and two thousand people were displaced from their homes (see video here). The Quebec disaster is the fourth freight train accident in Canada this year involving crude oil shipments.


The shipping of fossil fuels by truck accounts for 4 percent percent of oil and gas shipments in the U.S. Trucking incidents release an average of 477,558 gallons of petroleum each year. Compared to other shipping modalities, truck transport of fossil fuels has highest rate of incidents, with 19.95 per billion ton miles per year. Trucking also has the highest fatality rate. The fatality rate for operator personnel and the general public between 2005 and 2009 averaged 10.2 people a year. The average spill volume of petroleum products shipped by truck is 13,707 gallons per billion ton-miles.

A dramatic illustration of the dangers of shipping fossil fuels by truck is illustrated by a 2010 explosion in the Congo where at east 204 people were killed when a tanker truck transporting oil flipped over and exploded (see video here).

Taken together train and truck transport are responsible for the majority of incidents (accidents and spills).


Tanker and barge traffic accounts for 23 percent of oil shipments, according to the Manhattan Institute Study. While the dangers of shipping oil through rail and pipelines have received a lot of press, oil tankers are responsible for some of the largest oil spills in history. Here is a review of the three biggest tanker spills (quantities are measured in tonnes of crude oil with one tonne being roughly equal to 308 US gallons, or 7.33 barrels, or 1165 liters).

  1. The Odyssey was an oil tanker that spilled its load of crude oil 700 nautical miles (1,300 km; 810 mi) off Nova Scotia, Canada on November 10th, 1988. In total, it spilled an estimated 132,157 tons (43 million gallons) of oil into the ocean. An explosion caused it to sink and the resulting spill remains one of the largest oil spills in world history.
  2. The Exxon Valdez spilled 104,000 tonnes of oil in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989. It is considered to be one of the most devastating human-caused environmental disasters. The Valdez spill was the largest ever in US waters until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in terms of volume released. The oil eventually covered 1,300 miles (2,100 km) of coastline, and 11,000 square miles (28,000 km2) of ocean.
  3. The MV Sea Empress was a single-hull oil tanker that ran aground near the southwest coast of Wales on February 15, 1996. A total of 72,000 tonnes of oil where spilled during the course of this incident. The ensuing oil spill affected a considerable area of nearby coastline, killing birds and soiling beaches.


Spills are an unavoidable corollary of oil pipelines. There are almost a half million miles of interstate pipelines that carry fossil fuels (crude oil, petroleum products, and natural gas) in the U.S. A total of 70 percent of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline on a ton-mile basis in the U.S. Fossil fuel bearing pipelines are a safer alternative when compared to rail, truck and tanker, but this should not be construed to indicate that they are safe.

The dangers of fossil fuel pipelines is illustrated by a 2011 pipeline explosion in Nairobi, Kenya, where at least 120 people were burned to death when a pipeline burst into flames. More than 100 others were hospitalized.

In the U.S., between 1992 and 2011, oil and gas pipelines have caused 10,270 injuries and fatalities. The number of incidents has ranged from 339 in 1999, to 721 in 2005. Property damage has ranged from $53 million in 1995 to $1.3 billion in 2011.

A review of pipeline safety has obvious implications for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tarsands bitumen from Alberta to Texas. TransCanada’s existing Keystone I pipeline, which would connect to the XL, has leaked 14 times in its first year of operation.

The Keystone XL pipeline can be expected to average almost 2 spills per year over the course of the fifty-year life of the Keystone line. Even TransCanada’s own conservative estimates indicates that it expects at least eleven spills over the life of the pipeline. Just one major spill on the Keystone XL pipeline could leak up to 1,000,000 barrels of oil, which could spread over thousands of kilometers.

Montana’s Yellowstone River oil spill by ExxonMobil released 63,000 gallons of crude into the local waterway and spread out over 240 miles. Early in July, 2013, almost two years to the day after the Yellowstone River oil spill, a gasoline pipeline outside of the small town of Lodge Grass on Montana’s Crow Indian Reservation spilled 25,000 gallons of gasoline. Over the last 20 years, there have been at least three spills from the 8-inch underground pipeline now owned by Phillips 66. In the same general area, the same pipeline spilled 2,300 barrels of gasoline in two separate spills in one week in 1997.

A significant portion of the Keystone XL pipeline will cut through Alberta. There are already over 399,000 kilometers of pipelines under the authority of the Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board.  Alberta’s pipeline network has spilled approximately 28,000 barrels (~4,452 cubic meters) equivalent volumes of liquid hydrocarbons every year since 2005. From 2006-2010, Alberta’s pipeline network leaked roughly 174,213 barrels of oil (~27,700 cubic metres). In 2010 alone, more than 21,000 barrels (~3,400 cubic meters) were spilled across the network.

In the last couple of years alone there have been some major spills in Alberta.  In 2011, 28,000 barrels (~4,452 cubic meters) of oil spilled on the Rainbow pipeline operated by Plains Midstream Canada near Little Buffalo, Alberta.

In late May 2012, an estimated 22,000 barrels of oil and water (~3,497 cubic meters) spilled across 4.3 hectares of muskeg in the northwest part of the province near Rainbow Lake from a pipeline operated by Pace Oil & Gas, Ltd.

On June 7, 2012, a major oil pipeline failure near Sundre, Alberta spilled between 1,000 and 3,000 barrels of light sour crude oil (~159-477 cubic meters) into Jackson Creek, a tributary of the Red Deer River. The river is one of the province’s most important waterways, providing drinking water for thousands of Albertans.

There have been many other spills in Alberta in recent years. For more details see Sean Kheraj’s review of pipeline spills in Alberta from 1970 to 2005 and his extensive summary of more recent oil spills from Alberta’s pipelines between 2006 and 2012.

The Manhattan Institute report states that “pipelines result in fewer spillage incidents and personal injuries than road and rail…” However, pipelines spill far more oil in terms of gross volumes than do any other form of shipping. The average pipeline spill is 19, 412 gallons, which is many times what we see in incidents associated with truck or rail transport. Further, pipelines are also worse than rail when spills are averaged according to the number of miles traveled (11,286 gallons per billion ton-miles compared to 3,504). Pipeline incidents release an average of 6,592, 366 gallons of petroleum per year which is many times more than any other transportation method.

All forms of fossil fuel transport whether pipe, rail, truck or tanker, comes with inherent risks. As explained by Kate Colarulli, of the Sierra Club, “To say we have to choose between rail and pipelines is cynical and defeatist,” she said, calling oil a “dangerous fuel” no matter how it is transported.

Factoring the risks associated with the transportation of oil and gas is an added incentive to wean ourselves off of fossil fuels while augmenting the relative value of clean sources of energy.

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: wikimedia commons

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