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Which Transportation Mode Is Safer For Liquid Hydrocarbon Transfer In The U.S.?

image credit: Liquids Pipelines In The U.S.
Ron Miller's picture
Principal Reliant Energy Solutions LLC

Ron Miller is an energy industry expert creating value by analyzing assets, markets, and power usage to identify, monetize, and implement profitable energy projects. He is a Professional...

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  • Sep 17, 2020 4:05 pm GMT

There have been various discussions on permitting new energy pipelines (crude, liquefied petroleum gas, refined products, natural gas) in the U.S., questioning their viability, need, and cost. In this article, I look specifically at liquid pipelines (i.e. the first 3 mentioned above), and investigate the safety record vs. alternatives of barging, trucking, and railcars.

The United States has the largest network of energy pipelines in the world, with more than 2.4 million miles of pipe. The liquid pipeline network is impressive, spanning 215,736 total miles by the end of 2017, per the Association of Oil Pipelines and Chart 1 of U.S. liquids pipelines.

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Over the last five years, total liquid barrels delivered by pipeline have increased 44%, or by 6,563,309,091 barrels with crude oil barrels increasing by 37%, and petroleum products increasing by 52%.


Chart 1: U.S. Liquids Pipelines


Needless to say, pipelines have been very busy transporting the increasing volumes of hydrocarbon liquids in the U.S. But how safe are they when we consider the risk of a leak or release?

Here are some facts of pipeline-transported liquid hydrocarbons (crude, refined product, LPG):

  1. 179,030 barrels released/leaked over 5 years (2013-2017)
  2. 89,205,886,249 total barrels transported over 5 years (2013-2017)


The percentage barrels released of the total barrels of liquids moved over 5 years is 0.0002%, or 1 in 498,273. According to The Economist, the probability of a liquids pipeline leak/release is about the same risk we take of dying from exposure to excessive natural cold, or 1 in 474,844. Source:

Quoting James Conca’s Forbes 26 Apr 2014, article “Pick Your Poison For Crude -- Pipeline, Rail, Truck Or Boat”, in the U.S., 70% of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline, 23% on tankers and barges over water, 4% by trucking, and 3% by railcar. Source:

The probability of a release by a U.S. liquids pipeline is very small, but how safe are liquid hydrocarbons pipelines when compared with other methods of transportation? Safety numbers are barrels of liquid hydrocarbons spilled during domestic transportation per billion ton-miles.

When viewing Graph 1, please keep in mind that 70% of liquids are shipped via pipeline whereas only 3% are shipped by railcar through 2007. Later in the article, I will describe the dramatic change in railcar movements of liquids in the U.S. and the accidents that have resulted in this change not reflected in Graph 1.

Graph 1: Barrels Of Crude Oil And Petroleum Products Spilled During Domestic Transportation Per Billion Ton-Miles


Since these figures were calculated, the number of railcars carrying crude oil around the country has skyrocketed, increasing 5,100% from 2008 to 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads. With more Bakken oil production, a new pipeline to carry this volume safely vs. increased railcar activity could be justified both on safety and cost. Comparing this explosion of liquids from the Dakotas since 2007, more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than was spilled in the previous thirty-seven years.

The disaster that spurred the U.S. railcar regulation occurred in July 2013 when a runaway freight train crashed in a rural town in Quebec, Canada. The resulting fire and explosions from 1.5 million gallons of Bakken crude oil killed 47 people and destroyed 30 buildings.

In the report titled “Safely Transporting Hazardous Liquids and Gases in a Changing U.S. Energy Landscape”, several key updates for railcar use in liquids hydrocarbons come into focus since 2007. Source:

  1. Railcars hauling larger quantities of oil over longer distances, with routes passing through communities with little experience with flammable liquids traffic.
  2. Sharp and unexpected increase in hydrocarbon liquids via rail service from 2005 to 2015.
  3. Rail accidents unintentionally released nearly 1.7 million gallons of crude oil from 2005 to 2015, mostly in the final three years.
  4. The fiery collision of two BNSF Railway trains in North Dakota in December 2013 served as a domestic wake-up call for the industry.
  5. The Federal Railroad Administration urged better track inspections after the February 2015 derailment in Mount Carbon, West Virginia where a CSX train hauling crude oil from North Dakota to Virginia derailed 27 railcars (793,800 gallons) on broken track, and the fire burned for days.

Each method of transportation has its trade-offs. Pipelines have fewer oil spills, but their spills can be bigger; pipelines move the bulk of liquids, and are the cheapest transportation option in cost per barrel-mile.


It’s simply cheaper and quicker to transport by pipeline than by rail or by truck. Looking at the alternative of railcar, the Keystone pipeline saves about $50 billion a year. A railcar carries about 700 barrels and for a train of 100 railcars, it moves 70,000 barrels over 3 days from Alberta to the US Gulf Coast. Keystone carries 830,000 barrels per day. The Congressional Research Service estimates that transporting crude oil by pipeline is cheaper than rail, about $5/barrel versus $10 to $15/barrel.

What is important to note, however, is that regardless of the long-hauling mode, most petroleum eventually gets onto a truck for the short moves. This limits the tons-mile risk but increases the incident number risk.


Although the U.S. has seen a decided uptick in hydrocarbon liquids transported via railcar since 2007 due to the expansion of shale oil and shale gas (natural gas liquids), pipelines are a safer and more economical alternative for transportation. The end-user consumer ultimately pays this surcharge for railcar movement of liquids in the price of petroleum products we use every day. Shouldn’t we be concerned in the movement of these products primarily from a safety perspective first, and also economics?

Copyright © September 2020 Ronald L. Miller All Rights Reserved

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 17, 2020

It’s simply cheaper and quicker to transport by pipeline than by rail or by truck.

Is there any concern about the lock-in that building out more pipelines has compared with truck or rail? By building out capital-intensive pipelines, a shift away from hydrocarbons in the future would leave those pipelines as cost burdens rather than benefits. Is the timeline for such a transition still far enough away that factoring that in might not be reasonable? 

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Sep 19, 2020

Matt, my take is that we will still need liquids pipeline for some time into the future. It is not uncommon for pipelines to be re-purposed with a change in service and direction, so a current day liquids pipeline could be a hydrogen pipeline down the road.

mike addy's picture
mike addy on Sep 18, 2020

Pipelines are used to transport oil from the wells to refineries and storage facilities. Pipelines are viewed as the most cost efficient way to move oil on land. Tank cars are another way to move crude oil across a landmass. The oil is loaded into the tank cars, and are moved by a diesel train across the rails to the refinery or the train’s planned destination. Trains can carry a massive amount of this oil by using of multiple tank cars.

Ron Miller's picture
Ron Miller on Sep 19, 2020

Thanks, Mike. Your are exactly right. 

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