Are There Any Truly Safe Ways of Transporting Oil?
The United States runs on oil, and so it needs to be transported to every corner of the country. But can it be transported safely? There are four main modes of oil transportation: truck, rail, boat, and pipeline. Can any of these methods be trusted? Which is the safest?
Trucks crisscross our nation, carrying goods from one end to the other. They’re a vital part of our economy. It stands to reason that they would transport our oil as well. Truthfully, though, they only account for about 4% of all crude oil shipments.
Trucks have can carry a limited supply, typically around 8,000 gallons, and are subject to traffic. A crude oil shipment could be delayed by hours if the driver gets stuck behind bad traffic or caught up in one too many red lights. They’re also incredibly dangerous. Trucking accidents are common in every state, and often result in severe injuries and fatalities. The danger only increases when the truck in question is carrying crude oil. Oil is toxic, flammable, and difficult to clean up once spilled.
Trains move even less oil than trucks, making up about 3% of shipments. That percentage is slowly increasing, however. As railway routes become longer and faster, the risk of oil spills becomes higher. In 2014 trains spilled more oil than in almost any other year before.
23% of crude oil in the US is transported via boat. They aren’t subject to traffic and roadway laws like trucks, so they can make very good time when traveling from point A to point B. Unfortunately, bad weather on the water is far more dangerous than bad weather on land. And boats can’t park for the night and wait for the roads to be cleared in the morning.
Oil pipelines have become infamous recently, thanks, in part, to the Keystone Pipeline protests from 2016. Bad or good, they transport about 70% of oil shipments in the United States. They’re cost-effective, less impacted by weather, and won’t be held up by a traffic jam. However, due to the amount of oil they move, when they spill it can be a catastrophe, especially if they spill into water systems. From 1986-2013, over 2 million barrels of oil were spilled via pipelines. In fact, the Keystone Pipeline was recently found to have spilled 9,000 barrels, adding on to the 4,700 barrels spilled in 2017, and resulting in severe ecological damage.
But the question still remains, which is safest?
The question of safety depends on who, or what, we want to keep safe. If the primary concern is human fatalities, then trucks are the worst option, followed by trains, and then pipelines, with boats being the safest.
For the amount of oil spillage per billion-ton-miles, then trucks are once again the worst, with pipelines not too far ahead, rail in second, and boats once again at the number one spot.
However, when it comes to the issue of environmental impact, especially with aquatic habitat, boats are the least safe, with pipelines in third, trucks in second, and rail in first.
Ultimately, there is no 100% safe way to transport oil, and no one way can be considered the safest, as what “safe” even means depends on who you are asking. As the country relies on oil to operate, it’s unlikely we’ll see any of the four transportation methods be fully phased out. Time will tell whether we find a way that lessens the impact on people as well as the environment.