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Aug 22, 201602:04 PMInside Wisconsin

with Tom Still

What's the safest way to transport crude oil?

(page 1 of 2)

With a constancy that goes unnoticed by most people, crude and refined oil flows past us every minute, hour, and day.

Millions of barrels move to and through Wisconsin daily via a mix of transportation modes that carry with them varying degrees of risk and efficiency.

Public perceptions of risk matter at a time when the flow of oil from Canada, Alaska, and the Dakotas remains high — and when 15% of the nation’s crude oil imports are passing through a major terminal in Superior, Wis., on the way south and east.

Oil spills of any kind generate headlines and public concern. Whether the source is a transoceanic tanker, a river barge, rail cars, underground pipelines, or trucks, major spills pose problems for people, wildlife, water, and the land.

All of those transit systems are used routinely across the United States. Rail and truck shipments remain relatively small as a share of the total but have increased sharply in recent years. Pipeline transport has grown steadily and tanker shipments have declined.

Analysts agree none of those modes will go away so long as there’s a demand for oil. Most environmentalists regard the oil transport debate as “picking your poison,” but other experts who have weighed the pro and cons agree some forms of transport are safer and more efficient than others.

A Wall Street Journal analysis in September 2015 noted that pipelines delivered about 58% of the nation’s oil supply in 2014, boats about 37%, and rail and trucks just under 3% each.

Because trains and trucks often pass through urban or heavily traveled areas, they pose more risk per barrel transported — as evidenced by fiery train derailments in Quebec and Virginia. Tankers and barges can carry much more oil, but the potential for a massive spill is proportionately higher and water is notoriously hard to clean.

Pipelines don’t spill as often as other forms of transport. In fact, a major industry association claims a 99.999% safe-delivery rate. When pipelines do spill, however, they can unleash major amounts of oil if not caught in time.

That’s what happened with the 2010 Enbridge spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, an accident that prompted a cleanup and a historic fine. It also led to massive investments elsewhere in pipeline replacement, repair, and monitoring technologies. Last month, an administrator for the federal Environmental Protection Agency gave the Kalamazoo River’s spill zone a clean bill of health.

“We found absolutely no evidence of the oil spill, and when I say no evidence I don't mean just the oil if you put your paddle in the water you're not going to get anything; I mean if you're looking at the banks, all that reconstruction work, you're not going to see any oil. It looks natural, that habitat has been absolutely restored,” said the EPA’s Robert Kaplan.


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About This Blog

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.



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