The safest way to transport oil and gas

The current events in Ukraine and its impact on Europe’s severing ties to Russian gas and last year’s cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline are examples of importance that pipelines play in our greater, (inter)national energy landscape. The results of these actions include the US now regulating security among the pipeline sector and Germany freezing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (it currently gets half its gas from Russia). Reading between the lines, from their inception to today, pipelines are an integral and safe conduit for transporting fuel across our nation. Don’t believe us? Ask the individuals who panic bought gas during the cyberattack.

This type of infrastructure is crucial. Consider early 2019, when concern that the current pipeline infrastructure could not keep up with the surge in oil production. As such, the US is seeing a return to shipping oil by train. Which got us thinking: what are the limitations when it comes to transferring oil via pipeline? And based on conversations surrounding the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Dakota Access Pipeline, how much safer is the use of pipeline versus other methods of transit such as rail, truck, and freight carrier?

According to the Smithsonian, the first pipeline was built sometime around 1862 and was a fairly crude wooden “V” that relied on gravity. This was the first of many steps to try and circumnavigate the use of wagons and boats transporting barrels of oil. Oh, it’s also probably important to note that the oil only flowed about 1000 ft.

Edwin L. Drake's first oil well. by Bettmann/CORBIS, courtesy of the smithsonian

Fast forward to 1975—the Alyseka Pipeline or Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) began construction. Three years and $8B later, an 800-mile pipeline connected the North Slope and the Port of Valdez. Unlike its wooden ancestor, this behemoth had safety precautions built in such as an emergency shut down mechanism, thermal regulation for stability, internal cleaning and well, it didn’t leave oil exposed to the environment.

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline, photo by Lauren Latchem, VIP Member

However, this pipeline does not just function as a straw to allow an unlimited amount of oil to pass through. There are strict, physical and engineering barriers that regulate the amount of oil that can actually pass through a pipeline at any given time. A 2014 study states that the low mobility due to high viscosity of “heavy crude oil” as well as impurities make it difficult to transport and refine. Heavy crude makes up a majority of what is extracted on Alaska’s North Slope and some of what is extracted in the Permian basin as well. Therefore, there is a finite amount of oil that can be transported via existing pipelines. And drilling sites throughout the US—especially those ramping up production in the Permian Basin—have met and exceeded this maximum capacity.

So where does this leave us? According to the Wall Street Journal, the US EIA data shows an 88% increase in the use of railway oil movement. The closure of projects such as the Keystone XL and Trans Mountain lines have the unfortunate consequence of shifting oil transit from pipelines to other mode of transportation. This is unfortunate due to the higher risk involved with transporting oil by rail. (Note: we are not advocating in any capacity for either project, just stating the inherent improved safety from the method of transit.)

A study by the Frasier Institute in 2015 showed that oil transported by rail is over 4.5 times more likely to “experience an occurrence” than oil transported by pipeline and that a majority of pipeline occurrences are in contained facilities and involve less than a square meter of oil.

Overall, it appears that pipelines are most efficient when it comes to transporting oil. It is unfortunate that (the unique socio-political aspect of activism in North Dakota aside) environmental groups continue to slow efforts to build more eco-friendly modes of transit for oil. It is also unfortunate that, at times, these energy companies function as their own worst enemy by refusing to share information (and thus can be vulnerable to digital hold-ups). As a petroleum-based world, the commodification of oil and natural gas is unlikely to shift dramatically in the near term. So, we advocate thinking critically about the infrastructure we create to transport the fuel that we use. And also take a moment to think about where it comes from.

For more on oil transportation methods, including truck and maritime, check this out!

Editor's Note: This story was originally written in 2021. There is a lot of nuance to many of these topics– much more than can be covered in one short blog post. We understand the complexities and hope that this article sheds some light on the pros and cons of oil transportation methods, regardless of other socio-political factors, which are also of high importance. Feedback? Just click on the contact tab at the top!