When a pipeline accident happens, it gets a lot of press. That leads people to believe that pipelines are more dangerous than they really are. But consider that there are about 3 million miles of natural gas pipelines and about another 200,000 miles of petroleum and petroleum product pipelines in the U.S.
For perspective, that’s nearly 70 times the length of the U.S. interstate highway system. Each year, thousands of people tragically die on these highways.
So even though pipeline accidents get a lot of attention, they are a relatively safe way to transport oil and gas. Pipelines are certainly safer than moving oil by rail.
In fact, when the environmental impacts of the Keystone XL pipeline were being investigated, the U.S. State Department did an analysis that concluded that if oil were to be shipped via the Keystone XL pipeline, there would be 6 fewer deaths per year than if that same oil was shipped by rail.
The kinds of deaths that spring to mind from rail accidents are probably like the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in Quebec. There, a train carrying crude oil derailed in town, and the subsequent fire killed 47 people.
But more commonly, people are killed in collisions with trains. In 2021, there were 2,145 highway-rail crossing collisions in the U.S. that resulted in 234 fatalities and 669 injuries. The average number of people who die each year from pipeline accidents is an order of magnitude lower than just the train collision numbers.
To be clear, there are plenty of things that we can’t ship by pipeline. Pipelines are suitable for liquids and gases that we produce and consume in great quantities. For niche chemicals, rail or truck transport are the default options.
Thus, the recent derailment in Ohio may be a reminder of the relative dangers of shipping volatile liquids by rail, but there was not a pipeline alternative. With oil, it’s a no-brainer. Shipping by pipeline is a safer alternative. And blocking pipelines is a good way to ensure that petroleum instead gets shipped by rail.
Finally, I want to make it clear that I have nothing against the rail industry. Rail is a critically important sector for the U.S. economy. But the safety statistics are what they are. When we have the choice, we should ship volatile liquids by pipeline.