NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Pipelines Are Safest for Transportation of Oil and Gas

July 10, 2012

The Obama administration's decision to delay approval for the construction of TransCanada Inc.'s proposed Keystone XL pipeline was based, in part, on concerns over the safety and reliability of oil and natural gas pipelines. For this reason, the president called for a comprehensive assessment of the pipeline's likely environmental impact before the project could gain approval, says Diana Furchtgott-Roth, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

However, the president's decision ignores a time-proven truth: pipelines are by far the safest and most responsible means for transporting resources like oil, petroleum and natural gas. Compared to the primary alternatives (road and rail), pipelines have dramatically fewer incidents that involve environmental damage, injuries or fatalities.

  • America has 175,000 miles of onshore and offshore petroleum pipeline and 321,000 miles of natural gas transmission and gathering pipeline.
  • In addition, over 2 million miles of natural gas distribution pipeline send natural gas to businesses and consumers.
  • Approximately 71 percent of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline on a ton-mile basis.
  • Tanker and barge traffic accounts for 22 percent, road accounts for 4 percent, and rail constitutes the remaining 3 percent.
  • As for dry natural gas, virtually that entire energy source is shipped via pipeline.

Despite its responsibility for a heavy majority of shipping, pipeline is responsible for a disproportionately low fraction of environmental incidents.

  • Rail had the highest rate of incidents, with 651 per billion ton miles per year between 2005 and 2009.
  • This was followed by road, with 20 incidents per billion ton miles per year.
  • By comparison, pipeline incidents were almost negligible: natural gas had only 0.89 incidents per billion ton miles per year and had only 0.61 incidents per billion ton miles per year.

The relative safeness of pipelines also carries through to their lack of fatalities, compared to rail and road.

  • Between 2005 and 2009, road transportation average 10.2 fatalities and 21.8 injuries per year.
  • In that same period, rail averaged 2.4 fatalities and 25.6 injuries per year.
  • Oil pipelines had only 2.4 fatalities and 4.0 injuries per year, and natural gas lines had 1.0 fatality and 6.2 injuries per year.

Source: Diana Furchtgott-Roth, "Pipelines Are Safest for Transportation of Oil and Gas," Manhattan Institute, June 2012.

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