At no point in our nation’s history has the role and future of our national pipeline infrastructure been subject to more careful review and scrutiny.
Our 2.6 million miles of pipeline (enough to wrap around the earth 1oo times) have – for decades – transported the lion’s share of our nation’s needed energy, chemical, and water resources. For most of that time, this infrastructure has remained “out of sight and out of mind.” That of course is no longer the case given the heated debate surrounding construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
What’s more, last week’s incident in Mayflower, Ark. has energized an already-vocal minority, leading critics of Keystone XL to renew their call to reject the project, pointing to Pegasus as evidence of the potential dangers of our vast pipeline infrastructure. Pegasus has carrying Canadian crude, but it was conventional crude, not the type assailed by opponents. Moreover, Exxon’s quick response and mobilization has resulted in the potential spill size being revised downward by 50% to no more than 5,000 barrels.
Scrutiny is, of course, a welcome and warranted thing. But, in the face of this analysis, it is of the utmost importance that we, as a nation, recognize the indispensable role that pipelines have played and will by necessity continue to be utilized in our economy.
The fact is, there is simply no replacement for the efficiency, safety, and expansiveness of our pipeline system. Opposing the construction of Keystone XL – by all accounts a state-of-the-art system that will set the standard for pipelines in years to come – is short-sighted, unrealistic, and not founded in a true understanding of our nation’s energy infrastructure.
Despite cries to the contrary, development of Keystone XL will actually help to reduce the likelihood of spills in the future. Pipelines transport is far, far safer than any other form of transportation. In the last 10 years, there were 6,566 pipeline incidents. In the same time period, there were 61,426 railroad accidents. When compared to trucking, pipeline transportation is a staggering 16 times safer than rail, and 189 times safer than trucks when comparing freight tons shipped. To take it a step further, according to USDOT statistics, pipelines are 451 times safer than rail on a per-mile basis. The disparity between pipeline and highways becomes even more stark, with pipelines a full 29,280 times safer on a per-mile basis.
In fact, thanks to strong government oversight by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”), new technologies, and a shared safety responsibility by all stakeholders, pipeline incidents continue to decline. Over the past 10 years, the frequency of pipeline spills has decreased by 59%, and the volume of pipeline spills has decreased by 43%, even as overall production has increased both the mileage of active pipelines and the freight tons shipped by them.
The addition of advanced pipeline systems, like KeystoneXL, will help to improve these numbers even further, expanding our vital pipeline infrastructure in a manner that allows us to safely transport more of the energy that our economy relies upon to stay competitive.
Critics of Keystone XL are quick to highlight their claim that oil sands resources – like those transported by KeystoneXL – are more corrosive than traditional crude oil and, thus, more likely to spill.
This is simply untrue.
The government – including the regulatory body I previously oversaw, PHMSA – has not documented a single instance of where a release of oil sands crude was caused by internal corrosion of pipelines. The characteristics of diluted oil sands crude, such as that which would be transported by Keystone XL, are similar to conventional crude oil. In fact, Canadian diluted bitumen, sometimes called dilbit, is actually less corrosive than crude oil from Mexico, Colombia, and even California. While opponents claim this type of crude is more corrosive, they have been unable to produce a single study which agrees with their assertions. On the other hand, studies in the United States and Canada have shown that this type of oil is not more corrosive.
The largest issues facing pipeline safety today come from the actions of third parties completely unrelated to the actual operation of the pipeline, such as construction projects, excavation, utility work, planning and zoning decisions near pipelines, and even homeowners. April is damage prevention month, and anyone seeking to dig, including in your own back yard, should remember one number: “811.” Yes we can all do our part for underground pipeline and utilities by simply picking up the phone and calling 811 three to five days before digging. By doing so all utilities in your dig area will be located and marked for free. This service is free.
It may be tempting and politically expedient to point to an imagined “Bogeyman” such as oil sands corrosiveness as root of all incidents. But the fact that something makes for a good talking point doesn’t make it true.
Arguments against the construction of KeystoneXL hinge almost completely on ideological rhetoric that has been consistently addressed and disproven by both historical operating statistics and forward-looking analyses by bodies ranging from the State Department to the Department of Energy.
Pipelines uneventfully transport millions of barrels of crude oil, refined products and distillates each and every day, which according to government estimates, accounts for approximately 65% of all energy supplies used on a daily basis.
There is – very simply and very clearly – no substitute for this system.
It is no surprise that opponents of the project are bending over backward to tie the Pegasus upset to their opposition to Keystone XL. We would be well served, however, to resist the urge to rely on factually sparse rhetoric in formulating our future infrastructure policy.
The facts are clear: pipeline infrastructure is the safest, most affordable, most efficient, and the most environmentally friendly means of transporting the resources we need. While we must always learn from incidents like Pegasus, it is equally important that we not allow such events to be wrongly associated with this infrastructure system as a whole.
Read it on Forbes