January 10, 2013: TransCanada’s much-anticipated Keystone XL Pipeline cleared an important hurdle on January 4, when the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality (NDEQ) sent its evaluation of the pipeline’s new route to Governor Dave Heineman. The NDEQ concluded that the new route proposed by Transcanada avoids many environmentally sensitive areas that had been a source of concern. Nebraska’s Governor now has until the first week of February to review the report and make a recommendation on the pipeline to the U.S. government.

Of course, the pipeline’s new route, while avoiding many of the sensitive areas included in the original route, is not without risk. The transportation of oil or any hazardous substance, whether via pipeline, rail car, tanker truck, river barge, or ocean-going tanker ship, involves some risk of spill. But pipelines are widely considered to be the least risky of all these modes of transportation.

Data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show that in 2009, there were 117 hazardous materials transportation incidents involving liquid pipelines, compared to 643 involving rail, and 12,728 involving highways.1 In 2009 alone, there were more hazardous material incidents involving rail transportation than there were incidents involving liquid pipelines in all of the previous four calendar years combined.

While this raw data does not tease out types of incidents or specific hazardous materials involved, some recent articles and studies support the argument that shipping oil via pipelines is far safer than shipping it via any other means.

A study released last year by the Manhattan Institute,2 and summarized by its author in another article, analyzes existing public data to show that pipelines are the safest, most cost-effective, and least harmful way to transport oil.

A review of safety and accident statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation for the extensive network of existing U.S. pipelines—including many linked to Canada—clearly show that, in addition to enjoying a substantial cost advantage, pipelines result in fewer fatalities, injuries, and environmental damage than road and rail.3

In an opinion piece in The Missoulian, retired civil engineer and pipeline expert Marshall Cromwell argues that “pipelines are the safest mode of transportation for crude oil in the world.”4

Yet, as a recent Associated Press article in The Billings Gazette notes, rail has become one of the fastest growing means of transporting oil, in part because of the roadblocks routinely thrown in the way of the Keystone XL and other critically needed oil and gas pipelines.

Oil trains are gaining popularity in part because of a shortage of pipeline capacity — a problem that has been worsened by environmental opposition to such projects as TransCanada’s stalled Keystone XL pipeline.5

The same article reports that:

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, described rail as “the greater of two evils” because trains pass through cities, over waterways and through wetlands that pipelines can be built to avoid.6

Even the Association of American Railroads “acknowledges the likelihood of a rail accident is double or triple the chance of a pipeline problem,” reports the Gazette.7

Whatever one may think of oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, it is clear that they will continue to be developed and shipped to market. The Keystone XL and other pipelines offer the safest, least harmful way to transport these resources, yet pipeline opponents would shut them down, diverting these hazardous materials to modes of transportation that are orders of magnitude more risky and less green.

Meanwhile, as the debate over these pipelines rages on, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) and other pipeline trades unions continue to train the safe, skilled, productive workers needed to build pipelines to the highest, and most current, safety and environmental standards. A LIUNA representative sits on the committee responsible for developing, refining, and regularly updating industry-wide skills standards; and the LIUNA Training and Education Fund recently revised its extensive pipeline worker training program at the request of its signatory contractors.

LECET and LIUNA hope that Governor Heineman soon will recommend approval of the Keystone XL, and that the Obama State Department follows suit. That would be the best way to transport oil from Alberta and points South to the Gulf Coast while protecting the environment and minimizing downstream risks.

Ed Rehfeld, LECET Manager of Communications


1) United States Department of Transportation, Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics: “Table 1-5, Hazardous Materials Transportation Incidents: 2004-2009,” Transportation Statistics Annual Report, 2010, accessed 1/9/13, http://www.rita.dot.gov/bts/sites/rita.dot.gov.bts/files/publications/transportation_statistics_annual_report/2010/html/chapter_02/table_01_05.html.

2) Furchtgott-Roth, Diana: “Pipelines Are Safest for Transportation
of Oil and Gas,” Issues 2012, Number 17 (June, 2012, Manhattan Institute).

3) Ibid., pages 1-2.

4) Cromwell, Marshall: “Pipelines Are Safest Way To Transport Oil,” The Missoulian, 2/12/12, accessed online 1/9/13, http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/columnists/pipelines-are-safest-way-to-transport-oil/article_7dfd97be-5410-11e1-8113-001871e3ce6c.html.

5) “Trains Carrying More Oil Cross-Country amid Boom,” Associated Press via The Billings Gazette, 12/28/12, accessed online 1/9/13, http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/trains-carrying-more-oil-cross-country-amid-boom/article_ea3ef59a-62c8-5478-ba56-340b743d5697.html.

6) Ibid.

7) Ibid.