Good Pipeline, Bad Pipeline.

Like it or not, fossil fuels run the world as we know it. From cars, to product transport, plastics, computer parts, and even the electricity used to power this laptop, our society is fueled by oil and gas. Though there have been alternatives created, none have been cheap or reliable enough for mass use. Oil and gas usage in the daily lives of Americans is not coming to an end anytime soon:

“While the overall energy history of the United States is one of significant change as new forms of energy were developed, the three major fossil fuels — petroleum, natural gas, and coal, which together provided 87% of total U.S. primary energy over the past decade — have dominated the U.S. fuel mix for well over 100 years. Recent increases in the domestic production of petroleum liquids and natural gas have prompted shifts between the uses of fossil fuels (largely from coal-fired to natural gas-fired power generation), but the predominance of these three energy sources is likely to continue into the future.”

The extraction and refinement of these products is a highly complicated and many times controversial subject. From fracking (hydraulic fracturing), released gases, contamination of water, and CO2 pollutants, the fossil fuel industry seems to always be on the defense about something. However, one of the most misunderstood parts of this industry is transportation, especially in recent news with the protests over the North Dakota Access line and the Keystone XL line that included police intervention and arrests. Obviously, oil does not come out of the depths and go straight to your tank. There are many modes of transportation, and just like all the other aspects of the industry, they are highly criticized. The media coverage of protests and political maneuvers regarding the recent pipeline construction has created many myths in the minds of the public regarding transport. If you stopped a person on the street and asked them what they thought of pipelines, you would most likely get some sort of negative response (especially in Austin). In this article, I will look into the various transportation modes, and clear the air on which ones have the ‘cleanest’ track record.

It would be helpful to begin by looking at what types of transport the industry actually uses. These change based on the price oil and gas, geographical barriers, local and federal law, and efficiency. The first is the most well-known, pipelines. There is about 1,745,850 miles of pipeline for crude oil and natural gas in the U.S.[1] Another major type of transport is by boat or barge. This is especially popular along the Texas and Louisiana coast, as there is a lot of production and refinement there. For places without a large body of water, and restrictions on pipelines, trucking is a somewhat popular choice. Lastly, if there happens to be a line, rail is often used. The relative volume is important to notice, as industry prefers pipelines and boating over anything else (Figure 1, 2). This is due in part to the ease of use, cost, and safety of those two modes. Most products can be piped from the Midwest down to the coast, and then once refined, shipped to their respective destinations. Pipelines and boat transport are the two safest modes, they are cost effective, and they keep the companies out of the news as much as possible.

The main concerns with accidents are spills related to worn out equipment and lack of maintenance, or human error. Many times, these accidents can lead to fire and even human deaths, as well as environmental issues:

“The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and protesters say the oil pipeline, which crosses the Missouri River nearby, will pose a grave threat to drinking water on the reservation and farther downstream if it ever leaks.”

Many of the pipelines are underground and thus pose a risk of contaminating water reservoirs and making it harder to clean up. Contrary to popular belief however, the industry still sees pipelines as the safest way to transport product due to its relatively low accident rate. This view is not shared by the general public, as media tends to focus on issue analysis. Pipeline spills are similar to airplane crashes; according to the National Safety Council, the odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 114, and the odds of dying in an air and space transport incident are 1 in 9,821.[2] Similarly, pipelines have the lowest amount of incidents compared to the other modes of transport (Figure 3), yet most protests and public descent is due to the idea that pipelines are inherently dangerous and accident prone.

Regardless of relative issues, pipelines still pose problems. Even the industry has been trying to figure out innovative ways to lower the risk of accidents or spills. If the companies can focus on advancing safety technology and communicating the facts to the public, there might be productive discussion about this and hopefully a profitable, yet safe and clean outcome for everyone.


Figure 1 — Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Transported in the United States by Mode (Billions ton-miles)

Source: Bureau of Transportation Statistics —

Figure 2 — Crude Oil and Petroleum Products Transported in the United States by Mode (Percent)

Source: Burea of Transportation Statistics.

Figure 3 — Incident Count (2009–2016)


Hazmat Intelligence Portal —

Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration