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Pipelines or Rail for Fossil Fuels are False Choices

By Dory Hippauf - No Fracking Way, March 11, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The so called “train bombs” are gaining public attention, mainly due to the media reporting. We have to keep in mind the first rule of reporting news – If it bleeds, it leads.

A train derailment with a spectacular fireball is more “entertaining” than a pipeline leak.

Transport of fossil fuels by rail is more expensive than transport via pipeline. Due to the cost considerations of rail or pipelines it is obvious the industry would prefer to use a pipeline.

The frequency of news reporting around rail accidents involving fossil fuels has put the public in “scare mode” with every train being looked at as a potential disaster. This works to the industry’s benefit in proposing more and more pipelines.

Who Regulates?

Pipelines and Rail transport are regulated by two sub-administrations under the US Department of Transportation (USDOT).
Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) regulates pipelines, with the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) charged with carrying out “a national program to ensure the safe, reliable, and environmentally-sound operation of the Nation’s pipeline transportation system.”

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966.


Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS)

Since 1986, the entire pipeline safety program has been funded by a user fee assessed on a per-mile basis on each pipeline operator OPS regulates. Currently there are 151 Inspection and Enforcement (I&E) employees, 90 of which are pipeline inspector positions for the entire nation. The 90 inspectors are spread across 5 regional offices in the nation.

The nation has more than 185,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipelines, nearly 320,000 miles of gas transmission pipelines, and more than 2 million miles of gas distribution pipelines.

OPS regional offices inspect interstate pipeline systems and intrastate facilities under direct Federal jurisdiction to determine operator compliance with pipeline safety regulations. These facilities include certain municipal and master meter gas systems that by State law are not subject to State regulation or intrastate pipelines in States where the state agency is not participating in the program.

However, pipeline operators are responsible for reporting leaks, spills or other accidents to OPS. The data used to compile reports comes largely come from accident/safety-related condition reports submitted by gas and hazardous liquid pipeline operators and annual reports submitted by gas pipeline operators which include information on miles and types of pipelines. In other words – the industry self-reports.

OPS only know of accidents/leaks/spills if an inspector happens to be at the right place at the right time, an operator reports it or the “event” is too big to miss. This calls into question the accuracy of statistics and reports.   There is a high probability that there are more pipeline “events” than are being reported.

Additionally because majority of pipelines are located underground, leaks could go undetected for years.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

The Federal Railroad Administration has approximately 600 safety inspectors, specialists, and other staff work out of 8 field offices across the United States and 300 staff are based in Washington, D.C. FRA regulates more than 760 railroads (including 27 passenger, 8 switching and terminal, approximately 134 tourist/excursion/historical, and 640 freight railroads).

According to rail industry officials, U.S. freight railroads delivered 435,560 carloads of crude oil in 2013 (roughly equivalent to 300 million barrels), compared to 9,500 carloads in 2008. In the first half of 2014, 258,541 carloads of crude oil were delivered.

While oil by rail has demonstrated benefits with respect to the efficient movement of oil from producing regions to market hubs, it has also raised significant concerns about transportation safety and potential impacts to the environment. The most recent data available indicate that railroads consistently spill less crude oil per ton-mile transported than other modes of land transportation.


Regardless of positions about the fossil fuel issue, the general public is most concerned with safety and how safe are they in their backyards.

Safety depends on how “safety” is defined. What are the risk factors?

  • Frequency of an “event”
  • Potential human cost in injuries or death
  • Potential extent of damage
  • Long and short term impact on the environment
  • Economic/financial costs (long and short term)

Without more extensive research, comparing rail accidents to pipeline accidents is problematic due to the style and format of reporting. Additionally, as previously mentioned, OPS largely relies on operators self-reporting which leads one to believe pipeline “events” are under reported.

PHMSA published HMCRP REPORT 1: Hazardous Materials Transportation Incident Data for Root Cause Analysis which looks at reporting and data collection procedures. It includes all methods of transport.

PHMSA reports are divided into two categories:

  • Serious Incidents include a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization. From 2004 forward, gas distribution incidents caused by a nearby fire or explosion that impact the pipeline system are excluded.
  • Significant Incidents are those including any of the following conditions, but gas distribution incidents caused by a nearby fire or explosion that impacted the pipeline system are excluded:
    • Fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization
    • $50,000 or more in total costs, measured in 1984 dollars
    • Highly volatile liquid releases of 5 barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more
    • Liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion

PHMSA Pipeline Incidents: (1995-2014)

phmsa stats

3 year average (2012-2014): 631 incidents. NOTE the yearly number of incidents have increased from 2012-2014.

3 year average (2012-2014): $18,438,033 in property damage

A year ago, the FracTracker Alliance calculated that there was an average of 1.6 pipeline incidents per day in the United Sates.  That figure remains accurate, with 2,452 recorded incidents between January 1, 2010 and March 3, 2014, a span of 1,522 days.

Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)

FRA reports do not isolate incidents by what the train is transporting, nor do provide property damage costs.

However, FRA did post the following on their website:

For all hazardous materials, in the 12 years from 1994 through 2005, hazardous materials released in railroad accidents resulted in a total of 14 fatalities. In the same period, hazardous materials released in highway accidents resulted in a total of 116 fatalities.

FRA reports are generated by year, (2015 information is not available at this time).

Below is an abbreviated summary of accident/incident counts for 2011-2014. For full report or other reports see FRA 3.01-Accident Trends-Summary Statistics.

railroad stats

Is there an increase of train accidents involving fossil fuels? Yes, given a 4 year average of 1,829 accidents per year and the increase of rail cars carrying fossil fuels then there would be more train accidents would involving fossil fuels.

A Question of Scale

In the absence more detailed and deeper research comparing rail vs pipeline transport of fossil fuel we can only look at the question of scale.

A single crude oil railcar can carry approximately 680-720 barrels of crude oil.

The 2010 a pipeline operated by Enbridge caused an estimated 843,000 US gallons to spill into Talmadge Creek in Michigan. The Talmadge Creek flows into the Kalamazoo River. Approximately 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River was closed. Clean up continues to today.

In 2013, an Exxon pipeline in Mayflower Arkansas leaked through a residential neighborhood. There have been varying estimates of how much crude spilled. Initially ExxonMobil did not state an exact amount. On March 30, the company reported that 4,500 barrels of oil mixed with water had been recovered. The following day the company said 12,000 barrels of oil and water had been recovered. The company was unable to estimate how much of the total was oil and how much water.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) pipelines spill three times as much oil over comparative distances as rail.

The IEA found the risk of a rail spill is six times as high as the risk of a pipeline spill, but pipelines simply spill more when they rupture.

Think about it…..there is a 3rd choice

When we focus on Pipelines or Rails for fossil fuel transport we buy into the false choices being presented by the media and corporations. We also inadvertently acknowledge the need for fossil fuels.

We do have a 3rd choice of NEITHER. We must redirect the conversation to reducing/eliminating dependence on fossil fuels. If we reduce or eliminate our dependence we reduce the need to transport it and by extension reduce or eliminate the risk of spills, leaks, and explosions.

Think about it.

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