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Is Moving Oil Via Pipelines a Bad Way to Transport Oil?

September 13, 2016

David Z. Morris of Fortune wrote an article about transportation of oil via pipelines. Below is a summary of his article; Pipelines: The Worst Way to Move Oil, Except for All the Rest.  

Dakota Access Pipeline Protests
Apparently members of the Standing Rock Sioux and other Native American tribes feel moving oil via the Dakota Access oil pipeline is not a good thing. Their protests have halted construction of the $3.7 billion pipeline which is intended to haul Bakken oil from North Dakota, South Dakota, through Iowa to Illinois.

The tribe’s claimed in court that they weren’t given sufficient opportunity to assess the pipeline’s impact and it continues a legacy of exploitation by crossing ancestral land. The Dakota Access pipeline also crosses the Missouri River just upriver from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and protestors argue this jeopardizes the water supply for the tribe and entire region, should a pipeline leak happen.

Oil Transportation Challenges

Oil pipelines do leak…in 2010 843,444 gallons of crude oil leaked from a pipeline owned by Enbridge (Co-Owner of the Dakota Access pipeline) into wetland around the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. This leak was because Enbridge had an inadequate leak detection system in place. They made a $177 million settlement with the U.S. government. According to Enbridge’s own data they had 804 pipeline leaks and released 5 million gallons of oil between 1999 and 2010.

However, here is the bottom line: blocking a pipeline may not be the best thing for the overall safety of oil transportation. This is because as bad as an oil pipeline leak is for the environment (and they are disastrous) alternatives may be worse.

In the past decade lack of pipeline capacity (especially in North Dakota) has made moving oil by train common. However, these oil trains explode, as one did in Heimdal, North Dakota, in May of 2015. At least 10 other oil train explosions happened within a two-year period, including the 2013 oil train explosion that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Future Considerations
In 2015 Canada’s Fraser Institute found that moving oil by pipeline was 4.5 times safer than doing so by rail. By saying no to pipelines the protestors are saying yes to rail transportation of oil, which has the potential to greatly increase risk to human health, along with the environment, and it does not decrease the risk.

The outcome of the Dakota Access pipeline has yet to be determined, the activists might be able to push for a re-routing of the pipeline or other compromises. The shipment of oil by train has declined significantly over the past year or two because more pipelines are being constructed and low oil prices.

Source: Paul Thares, South Dakota State University