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Are pipelines a safer alternative for transporting fuel?

July 07, 2013

2.5 million miles of pipeline transport hazardous liquid and natural gas products across the United States - but are they safer than the vehicle-based alternatives?


This past weekend saw a train carrying crude oil derail in Quebec, starting a huge fire that burned for over a day. At least five are dead and 40 are unaccounted for. Accidents like these are one of the hazards of moving large amounts of flammable fuel, and this latest disaster has brought the debate over how to carry it back to the forefront.

The primary alternative to transport via vehicle is transport via pipelines. Back in January, with the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline underway, we took a look at these pipelines and how safe an alternative they really are.

This vast 2.5 million mile network of pipelines crisscrosses the United States – transporting hazardous liquid and natural gas products between wells, processing facilities and customers. Most of our domestic energy is delivered this way.

These pipelines are considered safer than train or truck transport – and cause far fewer injuries and death. But there are safety concerns, including terrorism. Pipe ruptures, leaks and explosions in the past decade caused an average of 76 deaths and serious injuries each year. Compare that to the number of U.S. workers killed on the job in 2011: 4,609.  

Two developments raise additional questions: A boom in natural gas from new-technology shale extraction will add significantly to the pipeline network. And there’s the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which if completed in full would run from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Check out our photo gallery for more on U.S. pipeline safety. See “What Do Others Say?” for more perspective, then add to the discussion below. Are you comfortable with these pipelines? Are they safe enough? And how do the risks associated with them compare to other transport methods?