Crude Movements

It seems that oil pipelines are in the news of late. Some of the new pipelines are to deal with the expanded production of crude oil here in the US. New and better technology – hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and directional drilling have resulted in the need for transportation of that oil, pipelines generally being the cheapest.

We produce about 10 million barrels of crude oil per day and import another 10 million barrels from sources all over the world. Most of this is turned into fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel and only a pittance for non-fuel petrochemicals.

But are pipelines the best way to go? Other methods to move the crude oil from where it is produced to where it is refined include barges, rail cars and tank trucks. What is the best way to do it? It depends entirely on what metric you use to measure “best.”

If you simply want to compare the least oil spilled when normalized for amount of total oil transported per distance moved (ton/mile) the ranking is barges and tankers are better than rail is better than pipeline is better than truck.

If your metric is human deaths and property destruction we get a different rank: barge is better than pipeline is better than rail is better than truck. How about environmental damage? Because aquatic environments are more sensitive the ordering becomes: Rail is better than truck is better than pipeline is better than barge.

Oh but it gets more confusing, because so much of the crude oil moves by pipeline, about 70%. Another 23% by barge and tanker, trucking 4% and rail transport a mere 3%.

If a decision were made to go to more trucking for example the change for the better (or worse) would not necessarily be linear. More trucking would mean more congestion, hence an increased risk of untoward events even after adjusting for total oil moved.

There is already some evidence of the non-linearity of change. From 1975 to 2012 trains were much shorter and had very few spills, but the recent oil boom means a higher proportion of oil moving by train. Because of longer trains and more frequent crashes, more oil was spilled in 2013 alone than the previous 37 years.

It is just not a simple “what is the best.” This conundrum is reminiscent of a senate hearing back in the 1970s. Ed Muskie was conducting a hearing as to the risks of the supersonic Concorde flying over the United States. The committee’s chief scientist said, “Senator, we’re ready to testify,” and Muskie responded, “Okay, tell me what the answer is. Is this going to be a danger?” The scientist responded “I’ve got these papers here that definitely tell us this is going to be a danger.” Muskie was ready to conclude right there, but then the NAS scientist interjected, “On the other hand, I have another set of papers over here that says these papers aren’t good enough to know the answer.” Incredulous, the senator looked up and yelled, “Will somebody find me a one-handed scientist?!”

A one-handed scientist may produce a simple answer, but it won’t necessarily be the only or best answer.

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