Subscribe for 17¢ / day

The production of oil in the Bakken formation and similar places is powering our country’s march toward energy independence and is reshaping our national energy debate.

Unfortunately, one aspect of that debate – an aspect especially important to residents of Montana and North Dakota and other states that either are enjoying booming oil operations or lie between oil fields and refineries – has been tainted by bad research and dubious claims. None have been as egregious as some advanced by increasingly frustrated Keystone XL backers who have asserted in various forums that the use of rail to move crude oil from fields to refineries puts the public in jeopardy.

Flawed statistics

Some recent criticisms of the rail industry cite a report by the Manhattan Institute warning that the recent upsurge in the shipping of crude oil by railroad all but guarantees disasters to come.

The problem with the original Manhattan Institute “white paper” and related coverage in the business media is that they relied on the same flawed statistics.

The Institute’s “analysis” begins with a comparison of crude-oil spills by railroads and those by pipelines. The white paper states that from 2005 through 2009, railroads averaged 718 incidents per year compared to only 354 per year for pipelines. It fails, however, to mention that federal requirements for reporting incidents are very different for pipeline operators and railroads.

Under Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration requirements, rail operators must report ALL spills. Pipelines are only required to report those over 5 gallons. Apples to apples, railroads averaged only 195 incidents per year, far fewer than the pipeline industry.

It’s important to note that most rail spills are small and occur during the filling of tank cars. These spills, while reported, are cleaned up immediately. Pipeline spills more often are catastrophic events. When a pipeline ruptures, a tremendous amount of oil is released, sometimes in a remote or hard-to-access area.

Even the units of measurement employed by the two industries betray the immense difference in scale between the two modes. For rail, crude oil is typically measured in gallons, while pipelines measure it in barrels. It takes 42 gallons of oil to equal one barrel. Throughout most of the recent debate around transporting crude, Keystone pipeline backers have misused data such as this in a bid to cast the rail industry in an unfair light. Railroad operators and advocates, for the most part, have held their fire. The railroad industry has never opposed the Keystone XL pipeline.

Different missions

The fact is both pipelines and rail are necessary to transport oil from mid-continent to coastal facilities. Pipelines and railroads have different missions. Pipelines haul tremendous amounts of oil, mainly north-south, between major facilities. Railroads, on the other hand, move oil quickly from newly producing areas to various refineries in areas that may not have the volume movement to justify a pipeline. And railroads can move oil east-west.

No matter what regulators decide or critics say, the reality on the ground is that getting oil from the Bakken and other new fields to refineries safely will take both rail and pipelines for years to come – regardless of whether Keystone XL is built.

And the facts make it clear that both the pipeline and rail industries should be proud of their safety records. It’s unfortunate some Keystone XL proponents have embraced a shortsighted strategy erroneously skewed for their own purposes.

Citizens of Montana, the Dakotas and states farther south are seeing more tanker cars than they have in years and there’s a very good chance they soon will see construction crews building a new pipeline. The public deserves to know that both railroads and pipelines have major roles to play in our country’s quest for energy independence — and, most importantly, both are safe.

Arnie Sherman is executive director of the Montana World Trade Center at the University of Montana. Peter Goelz is a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board.