Fifty Northern Southern Railroad train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, ten of them carrying toxic chemicals. With smoke billowing, residents on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border were ordered to evacuate.
This frightening incident should lead us to reexamine our pipeline priorities. Although the chemicals on the train could not move by pipeline, pipelines are used for natural gas and petroleum—and we need more of them.
Pipelines are the safest way to transport oil and natural gas because the pipeline stays still and the gas moves, away from people, with little risk of accident. New technology shows pipeline operators if there is a pinhole leak in a pipe, and sophisticated pressure gauges can signal if oil pressure is declining.
The train derailment in East Palestine was caused by a malfunctioning rail car axle, which was spotted on video camera 20 miles before the crash. The train was carrying vinyl chloride, a gas used to make plastic resin in hard plastic products, as well as butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate.
Almost 10 years ago, in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, the derailment of 73 rail cars carrying crude oil claimed 47 lives.
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Data published by the Department of Transportation show that pipelines have low injury and fatality rates. These findings have substantial relevance for America’s energy future. The question of how to transport oil and gas safely and reliably is not a transitory one.
For the past 20 years the number of fatalities from all pipeline transportation is approximately 13 per year, which is lower than the average number of people killed by lightning—49 fatalities per year, according to the National Weather Service. An individual had more than three times the chance of getting killed by lightning as being killed in a pipeline incident.
Natural gas transmission lines had a low average injury rate for operator personnel and the general public, having an average of only 5 per year over the last 10 years.
Just as natural gas transmission pipelines are connected with few injuries, they are also connected with few deaths. Between 2011 and 2020, there was an average of 2 deaths annually from natural gas pipeline incidents.
But pipeline construction is being slowed, and America needs pipelines to bring more oil and natural gas from where it is produced to domestic businesses and consumers, and for overseas export.
U.S. natural gas prices have declined since the August peak to about $2.40 per million British thermal units (BTUs), but Europe and Asia are seeing prices of $20 per million BTUs. This price differential creates a strong demand for American natural gas in Europe.
This means that more, rather than fewer, pipelines should be approved. But in New York, the Constitution Pipeline, the Northern Access pipeline, and the Northeast Supply Enhancement pipelines have been delayed due to protests by those who profess concern for the environment.
About 15 natural gas transmission pipelines are pending review at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC is now for the first time including potential greenhouse gases and effects on “environmental justice communities” in its pipeline approval process.
In addition, agencies including the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency are cutting off funding for pipelines by requiring companies to report climate effects of their investments. Banks that lend for fossil fuel projects, including pipelines, and companies that produce their components, are likely to face heightened regulatory scrutiny.
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Every day the United States produces about 12 million barrels of petroleum and about 100 billion cubic feet of natural gas. This fuel needs to get to where it is needed. Whether it’s produced in Canada, Alaska, North Dakota, or the Gulf of Mexico, it will be used all over the country, especially since new environmental regulations are forcing the closures of coal-fired power plants, increasing the demand for natural gas as a substitute.
Natural gas also backs up wind power, switching on when the wind stops, and is a vital part of electricity generation.
Pipelines are the primary mode of transportation for crude oil, petroleum products, and natural gas. America has 190,000 miles of onshore and offshore petroleum pipeline and 2.4 million miles of natural gas gathering and distribution pipelines Approximately 80 percent of crude oil and petroleum products are shipped by pipeline on a ton-mile basis. Road, rail, tanker, and barge account for the rest.
Transporting oil and natural gas through pipelines results in fewer fatalities, injuries, and environmental damage than road and rail.
The accident in East Palestine should be a wake-up call. America needs better pipelines to get natural gas from where it is produced to where it is used and exported. America’s ability to export gas will help our allies. Pipelines are safe, and safety matters.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/dianafurchtgott-roth/2023/02/14/speedier-pipeline-approvals-needed-for-oil-and-gas-transportation/?sh=58a8257b4518