Navigant Research Blog

Disasters Spotlight Dangers of Energy Transport

— August 1, 2013

Police in Québec said on August 1 that they have ended the search for the remaining bodies from the flaming crash of an oil tanker train that destroyed 40 buildings in the small town of Lac-Mégantic and claimed the lives of 47 people on July 6.

That news came on the same day that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration wrapped up its initial review of a report on the oil pipeline explosion that spilled thousands of barrels of oil in Mayflower, Arkansas in March. The two accidents have raised, once again, questions about the safety of fossil fuel transport in North America and around the world.

In particular, the Lac-Mégantic disaster has spotlighted the fact that oil and gas transport by rail is rising swiftly.  Even as the political fight over the Keystone XL pipeline continues, domestic oil and gas production has outstripped existing pipeline capacity; deliveries of crude oil to refineries by rail, truck, and barge grew to nearly 1.1 million barrels a day in 2012, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, jumping from around 7% of total refinery receipts to almost 11%.  Overall shipments of crude by rail increased 48% in the first half of 2013 compared to 2012.  That means the likelihood of more derailments, spills, and explosions grows – but it’s not at all clear that the risks of transporting oil by rail are any greater than by any other method.

400 Deaths a Year

The question of how best to get fuel, or energy, from its source to the point of use is a complicated one with many, many variables. Coal, of course, can’t be shipped by pipeline, and coal mines tend to be found far from population centers, where the energy is actually used.  In the United States, railroad shipments of coal surpass a trillion ton-miles a year, add to emissions of greenhouse gases (mostly from diesel-powered locomotives), and, according to a 2004 report from a pair of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, result in 400 deaths  a year – most of them at railway crossings.

The report examined the economic and environmental impacts of alternative methods for delivering electricity to end users, looking at four options to get a hypothetical 6.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to Dallas from coal mines in the Powder River Basin, in Wyoming: shipping pulverized coal to a power plant in Texas; transmitting electricity across the power grid to Dallas from a coal plant in Wyoming, close to the mines; a gas pipeline that transports methane coal-gas from a gasifer in Wyoming to a combined cycle power plant in Dallas; and a gasifier/methanation/combined-cycle plant in Wyoming that transmits electricity via the grid.

More to Come

The answer to “Which is best?” is, as you might guess, not clear-cut.  Shipping coal by rail is cheapest but dirtiest, burning 130 million gallons of diesel fuel (and killing 15 people, on average); transmission lines result in losses on the grid, requiring additional power generation; gasifying the coal is environmentally more beneficial but also much more costly than burning pulverized coal; and so on.

Pipelines, despite spectacular accidents like the 2010 disaster in San Bruno, California, which killed eight people and leveled 35 homes, boast a fairly sterling safety record – the report on the Mayflower spill reportedly blames manufacturing defects for that pipeline’s failure.  A series of moves by Congress and the Obama administration in recent years have strengthened regulations for fossil-fuel pipelines.  A panel of “Energy Insiders” on, asked to comment on the recent accidents, mostly punted, saying that “all human activity carries risk” and pointing out that rail accidents have significantly fallen in recent years, as well.

That doesn’t change the fact that sensational tragedies will likely rise as rail cars full of oil, and pipelines transporting natural gas, continue to crisscross the continent.  The costs – economic, environmental, and in human lives – of this transport are largely invisible until a bunch of people all get killed at once. It’s time they were factored into the overall cost of energy.


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