All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

I’ve been movin’ oil by railroad…

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With all the fuss and fret over the tar sands pipelines to move tar sands, it is easy to overlook the fact that there is a ready alternative for moving oil: rail. This week Premier Harper went out of his way to attack the idea.  Since Harper’s dislikes are usually a good guide to what is good and progressive, I thought that it would be worth investigating the idea.

Of course, there is a lot of contradictory information, depending whether your source is a pipeline or a railroad company.  Still, overall there seem to be a clear conclusion: railroad transport is better for the environment than pipeline, when it comes to tar sands.

Huh?  That would seem totally counter-intuitive.  Just think of all the smoke-belching locomotives, to say nothing of derailments (wasn’t it a CN train that derailed over the Cheakamus River a few years back and killed all the fish?).  Yes, indeed.  But consider this:

  • Moving a barrel of bitumen by rail produces less than half the emissions of greenhouse gases than by pipeline;
  • Spills from ruptured pipelines are worse than spills from derailments;
  • The rail infrastructure is already in place.

It takes much less energy to move bitumen by rail than by pipeline, and therefore there are fewer greenhouse gas emissions.  That’s because heavy crude (bitumen) is thicker than molasses.  It just can’t be pumped by itself.  It is therefore diluted with light hydrocarbons into dilbit (short for diluted bitumen).  But even when diluted, the stuff requires massive pumps to overcome the friction of moving a ketchup-like substance through a pipe.  There is also the energy expenditure of moving more material, since the diluent makes up about 30% of the total product.  But once the dilbit reaches its destination, the diluent must be pumped back to its origin, which means not only more energy-intensive pumping, but also a complete other parallel pipeline.  Estimates vary, but a figure of 2.9 grams of CO2 per barrel per kilometer by rail, against 7.7 grams by pipeline, seem reasonable.  Putting it another way, for every barrel moved by pipeline, you can move three barrels by rail for the same emissions.

Spills are also not as bad, even though there’s no such thing as a benign spill. Part of the reason for that is because rail cars carry undiluted bitumen.  The stuff is so viscous that it just doesn’t spread, so containment is easier.   Dilbit, by contrast, readily spews out of a ruptured pipeline.  Further, in a pipeline spill, a very large volume of dilbit may be released before a spill is noticed, let alone controlled; the disastrous Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River took hours to be noticed, releasing over four million litres before being brought under control.  Finally, the diluents in dilbit (such as benzene and toluene) are toxic and carcinogenic, which mean that a spill of dilbit has worse consequences than a spill of raw bitumen.

There is also the issue of infrastructure.  There is a lot of energy imbedded in building a pipeline, all of which contributes to greenhouse gas emissions throughout the process.  And, of course, there are the land use impacts during the construction of the line, which include not only significant disruptions but also pollution risks.  In contrast, there are rail beds criss-crossing the continent.  Some tracks may need upgrading, and tanker cars with heating jackets may be required, but that is still a far cry from the impact of building a large pipeline.

The idea of shipping bitumen by rail has been dismissed as unrealistic because of its alleged low capacity.  Yet, enormous amounts of another fossil fuel, coal, are shipped by rail (that’s a whole other issue), and even the residue from refining bitumen, petroleum coke, is shipped by rail – so what’s going on there?

The truth is, oil companies (and Harperites) love pipelines because of the certainty they afford.  Once a pipeline is built, there is a commitment to use it.  There is also a sense of control: once linked to a pipeline, always linked to a pipeline – there are no viable alternatives.  Once a pipeline is built between points A and B, rail costs are no longer competitive – especially if federal subsidies (incentives, tax holidays, etc) were used to build the damn thing in the first place.

This is exactly why I prefer rail.  Railroad transport uses little energy and can be very efficient, but its main virtue is flexibility.  Once the rails are in, any kind of merchandise can be moved in response to a changing market.  Rail is resilient: railroad companies have weathered the onslaught of just-in-time truck deliveries despite the enormous government subsidy that highway building program and cheap fuel represent.  In a changing era of carbon taxes, climate change, and new markets, a healthy rail network represents the ability to adapt to a changing future: rail is energy efficient.

And, let’s not forget: rail also create more jobs per barrel.

Does that mean that we should be encouraging the export of bitumen via rail?  No, not at all.  But decarbonizing an economy is an enormous, time consuming task.  The very first step is to stop investing into long-lasting fossil fuel infrastructure such as dilbit-carrying pipelines (especially if, as in this case, it also carries an enormous risk of environmental disasters).  Rail export is a lesser evil, so to speak: it gives time to the industry to adjust, remain profitable, keep its employees.  The money that would have been sunk in building a pipeline is now freed to invest in newer, greener technologies.  After all, Enbridge is also the owner of the largest solar power plant in Canada!

Eventually, inevitably, we will need to create a green economy, or perish.  Moving away from pipeline projects is a necessity – for the sake of our economy as well as our environment – and rail has the potential to make the adjustment more palatable to the oil industry.

Even if Harper doesn’t like it.  Especially if Harper doesn’t like it!


Postscript: just a day after posting, a train decides to lose it load of crude.  Oh dear.  Doesn’t take away from my argument, and I’d much rather see far fewer hydrocarbons move about.  And it’s interesting to see how the spill is now generating spin on both sides of the rail/pipe divide. Still, great timing, guys!


Written by enviropaul

May 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm

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