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Which is Safer for Transporting Crude Oil: Rail, Truck, Pipeline, or Boat

While this would seem to be a straightforward question – with a similarly straightforward answer – it’s not that simple. Specifically, the question has a more granular level when trying to determine which is safer – i.e., “better or worse.” In terms of death and destruction? In the amount of oil released from the transport mode? In the amount of environment contaminated or habitat destroyed? In the amount of CO² released?

Oil and gas have been moving around the US for decades – around and through wilderness areas, cities, and towns. While some would argue that this needs to stop – especially in regard to the shutdown of existing pipelines and construction of new ones – the reality is that this will not happen. Oil production continues to increase, and oil and gas must be moved to refineries (currently almost entirely along the Gulf Coast) in order to convert them to usable commodities. There are four viable ways of transporting oil and gas: pipeline, tanker truck, rail, and boat. These are the only methods of transport. So, the question again becomes how to do this in the safest way.

Currently, 100% of natural gas in the US is shipped by pipeline, as are 70% of crude oil and petroleum products. Crude oil is a very toxic and destructive material when it spills into the environment or encounters animals or humans. However, it’s not useable for energy or other purposes until its chemically processed, i.e., refined. To further complicate matters, crude oil from different sources has different properties which require specific processes and facilities to refine it. The last brand-new refinery in the US began operation in 1976. Since that date, the total number of refineries has decreased, while capacity has increased in facilities which grow to handle ever larger capacities. This means that crude oil must be moved ever longer distances to reach the location where it can be processed.

So which mode of transportation is safer, i.e., better? According to various sources, again, it depends. For transport of crude oil, the short answer is: boat more than pipeline more than train more than truck – in terms of human death and destruction of property. In terms of oil spillage (in billion-ton-miles), boat is better than train, which is better than pipeline, which is better than truck. In terms of environmental impact (primarily measured from an aquatic perspective), boat is the worst, then pipeline, truck, and rail.

The bottom line: there is no easy answer to this complex question. Most certainly, money will pay a part in the decision, as well the “vested interest” of the individual company or agency. For example, contamination of water is worse for the environment than land, spreads more quickly, and impacts greater numbers of species. That said, the Federal Government puts a price tag on human life – a BIG one – of about $8 million. Today it’s cheaper to transport by pipeline than by truck or rail. However, rail is more flexible and already has almost three times the number of miles or track versus miles of pipeline. And, building rail terminals is easier than building and permitting pipelines. So…the dilemma continues.

What we do know for certain is that the problem won’t go away. For at least the rest of this century, movement of oil and natural gas in the US is a reality. If you do choose trucking as your mode of transport, let Chorus Logistics give you a free estimate on how our suite of software products can adapt to your needs – corporate, supplier, customer, or regulator – at an industry-leading value. Contact us today for a free demonstration or to learn more.



Applebaum B. As US agencies put more value on a life, businesses fret. NY Times [online]. 16 Feb 2011 [accessed 28 Dec 2018].

Conca J. Which is safer for transporting crude oil: rail, truck, pipeline, or boat? Forbes [online]. 11 Oct 2018 [accessed 27 Dec 2018].

Westenhaus B. Trucks, trains, or pipelines – the best way to transport petroleum. [online]. 13 Aug 2013 [accessed 28 Dec 2018].