Posted: 17 Oct 2017

A report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) found pipelines and barges to have more comprehensive safety systems than train transportation systems.

Derailment in Heimdal, North Dakota. Source: NBC

Several concerns have arisen about the safe transport of hazardous materials, particularly in relation to railroad track defects, emergency response preparedness, and the use of older tank car designs in multi-car unit trains.

Pipelines and barges have accommodated much of the growth in domestic energy liquids and gases, without major new safety problems and within the boundaries of their longstanding regulatory and safety assurance systems.  The committee stressed that most energy supplies have been transported without incident, enabling the country to capitalize on its new energy resources and manage the safety risks associated with its transportation.

The increased production of crude oil, natural gas, and corn-based ethanol created additional demands and safety challenges in their transportation via pipelines, tank barges, and railroad tank cars.  When this study commenced in late 2015 railroad tank cars and tank barges were moving energy fuels in larger quantities over longer distances communities that had little, or no experience with the traffic of large quantities of flammable liquids traffic.

The committee found that railroads could implement safety improvements for moving crude oil and ethanol like those of the maritime and pipeline carriers. Increased domestic production means that the country lacks sufficient barge and pipeline takeaway capacity.  Railroads began to transport hazardous energy liquids in tank cars that had not previously carried these flammable materials in bulk and with shippers that lacked experience transporting them.  Following derailments, the industry and regulators focused was on reducing the severity of incidents by making relevant tank cars more crashworthy and resistant to thermal failure.

 Oil transmission pipeline mileage grew by more than 40 percent between 2010 and 2016. The committee said that incident rates have been generally stable, with year-to-year fluctuations stemming from periodic high-consequence events that are sufficiently rare as to limit judgments about their underlying risk.  Although the committee found no new safety problems have emerged from the increased use of pipelines transporting larger amounts of domestic oil and gas, substantially more pipeline mileage and higher traffic volumes may result in more pipeline releases over time, simply because of the increase in exposure.  The safety impact, however, is likely to depend on the extent to which new pipeline technologies, leak monitoring systems, and more vigilant and capable integrity management programs are effective in protecting the newer pipelines and the older ones that connect to them.

 Source: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine