Which spills and which kills? The Debate over Rail and Pipe Oil Transportation

In 2013 a deadly derailment of a train carrying crude oil killed 46 people in a first world country. Recently, protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline have been met with deadly police force. The debate over rail and pipeline to transport oil is wrought with ethical dilemmas.

Here we intend to present the ethical arguments for both sides. The key stakeholders involved in any oil transportation project are as follows; Oil companies, neighbouring communities, the general public and rail workers.

Rail is The Way

Much of the railway infrastructure, especially in the US and Canada, already exists. This means, unlike pipeline, new transport lines do not need to be built through communities and private lands. This is beneficial for the potential neighbouring communities and ecosystems who would otherwise be disrupted by a new pipeline being laid.

Railway lines also give the production company more options of customers to compete over their product, as they branch out too many locations.  In a world of volatile oil prices choice is king for the oil companies and the general public want to get the best value oil from the cheapest source.

Despite rail being 2.7x more likely to spill oil, a fixed volume of oil gets spilled, depending on how many tanks are ruptured.  This allows any financial/environmental damage to be limited and to be controlled. However, if a pipeline ruptures the damage to stakeholders could potentially be devastating, with 1/50 pipeline ruptures leaking over 1000m3 [1].

Pipeline leaks are hard to detect and with added pressures from oil companies to continue pumping oil at all costs this can lead to disaster. An example of this being the deepwater horizon spill of 2010 in which 4.9 million barrels causing large damage to local wildlife, which in turn led to an estimated 2.5-billion-dollar cost to the local fishing industry [2].

To reach a moral judgement it is important to consider several ethical frameworks. The potential total harm to the environment and surrounding population can be limited with rail, as any incidents that happen can be quickly cleaned up due to their small size. Thus the total harm to stakeholders is limited, as it’s impossible to spill as much oil into the environment as pipeline in one go.  The utilitarian argument of causing least suffering favours rail in this sense.

Consequentialism, focuses on the total outcome.  Pipelines have the potential to cause much greater harm to the environment and surrounding communities than rail.  Although the risk is lower, at some point a huge spill will happen and cause great harm.  This framework favours the smaller, less damaging spills from rail.

Virtue ethics focuses on professionalism, objectiveness and generally acting as a good person. It would be virtuous to choose rail over pipeline since building new pipes through communities and natural environments would undermine the professionalism of oil transport, especially since rail infrastructure is already in place for this transport.  However, this ethical framework is limited in its inclusion of all the stakeholders.

Overall, it is clear that the frameworks considered point to rail being the more ethical mode of transportation, with the utilitarian framework giving the most encompassing and compromising argument.

Train derailment in Canada which killed 43 people in 2013

Pipe is Right

Pipelines account for 70% of the total volume of oil transported in the USA and 93% of all oil transported in Canada [3]. This is due to this method of transportation delivering 99.99% of oil and having the least accidents per gallon per unit distance of all methods of transportation.

Pipelines are more efficient due to them being tailored to the transportation of fluids rather than an adaptation of existing infrastructure as seen with rail.  In addition, the greatest probability of leakage, and the least efficient mode of transportation, is the use of trucks [4]. The use of trucks is more prominent in conjunction with railway, thus increasing the likelihood of spillage increasing the carbon footprint of the mode of transport.

When comparing rail and pipe the vast majority of rail tracks pass through towns and cities. A train loaded with highly flammable crude can essentially be described as a ‘moving bomb’. As the vast majority of rail incidents occur at facilities [1] we can expect accidents to more likely occur in densely populated areas. This fact realised deadly consequences in 2013 when a train in Quebec derailed and killed 43 workers. In fact, when a railway accident occurs, due to proximity of the train drivers, deaths are far more common. All this has implications for neighbouring communities who can be affected by explosions and the rail workers themselves.

Pipelines are also around 3 times cheaper than railways, and are more energy efficient [1]. A railway uses energy transporting not only the oil, but also the heavy trucks. Whereas a pipeline offers a cheaper and continuous supply of the product. This is surely the better option.

To come to an ethical judgement as to why pipeline is the best mode of transport for oil we considered several ethical frameworks. Consequentialism looks at the total outcome of an action. We have seen with rail the outcome of a disaster is lives lost. But with pipelines the outcome is a spill, where most of them are immediately detected [5], is environmental damage but no loss of human life. Pipes are surely better under this framework.

Viewing the argument from a view of virtue ethics, should a disaster happen, the pipeline leaking would cause damage to the surrounding area. No doubt, environmental issues are far more likely to be severe with pipeline as opposed to rail, but the threat to humans manning the train is far greater with railway transportation. Many lives have been claimed in explosions involving railway, yet the number of casualties in pipeline is significantly fewer.

From a utilitarian point of view, where the happiness is maximised for the most amount of people, pipeline is cheaper thus the overall cost of crude for the wider population can come down. Although communities are disrupted by pipelines, as is seen with the Dakota Access Pipeline, those that benefit from cheaper oil prices far outweigh those that are disrupted. This framework has some issues in the way it deals with stakeholders however, and may give the pipeline industry a bad name.

Overall, our analysis using ethical frameworks gives more favour to pipelines as a mode of oil transport. The consequentialist point of view gives extra attention to the effects on the workers and would be the most palatable for the public.

Group 61: Charlie Adams, Duncan McCririck, Alex Hesketh, James Donald


30 thoughts on “Which spills and which kills? The Debate over Rail and Pipe Oil Transportation

    1. I really liked the article lots and it informed me about all the issues so now I will go and smash all the pipelines I see thanks to this article and your hard work thank you


  1. I personally prefer the notion of utilising the railways transport oil. I see it as a far more versatile means of transport, since pipelines could be troublesome and inappropriate in hillier areas in which the oil must be pumped uphill as well as warmer climates where constant exposure to sunlight and hence heat may be a problem

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pipelines are far more versatile than trains as you can transport materials within enclosed environments without much worry. A trainline you need to actually build rails on hills which complicate construction, where the overall input of energy and time may very well be much higher than the pumping power required for a pipeline. I think your point is invalid.


    1. Great point! This hasn’t been mentioned in the article about damage to wildlife. Extremely interesting article a good read


  2. I believe that rail is far better than pipeline due to the fact that rail infrastructure can be used for other purposes


  3. Amazing read, I feel fully clued up on all the surrounding issues, although i do think you could have gone into how it affects the environment and wildlife a bit more.


  4. Couple key point – Deepwater horizon didn’t have to do with a pipeline, and the people killed in Lac-Mégantic were not rail workers, they were people from the town.

    That being said, pipelines are cheaper, more efficient, and spill less than rail. Rail is only being used due to lack of pipeline capacity.


  5. Looks like a fine overview to me. One thing you didn’t bring up was the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. You mention that “pipeline is cheaper thus the overall cost of crude for the wider population can come down”, but it’s important to note that lower oil prices promote higher consumption, and therefore more carbon in the atmosphere. On the other hand, I’ve heard it said that restricting pipelines is economically inefficient: stopping a pipeline has a low environmental impact and a high economic impact, whereas other approaches (like carbon taxes) can have high environmental impact and low economic impact.


  6. The argument against oil wasn’t used at all here we need to understand that it is a unsustainable fuel source and pipeline development should not be encouraged


  7. With regards to standing rock; I’m pretty sure most of the people who participate in anti-pipeline protests are not terribly interested in picking between pipelines and trains, but rather, are trying to blockade the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure in general. Which is a very worthwhile effort, in my opinion, given the current state of the climate crisis.


  8. Interesting perspective on the impact of oil transportation and I agree that pipelines seem a more ethical and safe method of transportation.


  9. Pipeline is definitely better in the long run. Unfortunately in the standing rock case, the protests are more of a political nature. They probably don’t want more oil use regardless of where it is and also they don’t want my disturbance of land. I haven’t followed it at all so I’m just uninformed but if the location or safety of the pipe line was the problem they could ask for it to be moved. I wouldn’t be surprised if the project was motivated from outside of the Indigenous rights organization.


  10. I’d gather a hint we are having these discussions is just another sign of the crumbling infrastructure problems in North America.

    Many of the pipelines that have spills are up there in age (Not counting sabotage incidents) along with our rail beds.

    I was reading an article that was showing a large number of train incidents are happening on Bridges.

    It’s all a conspiracy by the Civil crowd to maintain importance I’d say…


  11. If literal pints per hour is the only concern, pipe is obviously better. If security is important (preciousness, or just attentiveness) then rail actually looks the better option.

    People feel less aggrieved if a train is carrying goods as that can have additional value along the way, increasing supply and access to some remote areas, and if there’s a breach, there are people already on hand to report and handle it. If a pipeline is breached (eg this is common in Nigeria) it takes a long time for the monitors to pick that up, track it down, stop the pipe (unlikely if there’s still money flowing, oil companies aren’t known for ethical practice – and anyway there could easily be hundreds of millions of pints still in the tube to leak out under gravity), and bring a crew.

    I think when you look at the wider picture, and the deservedly deep distrust of oil companies, train may actually be the better option all round.


  12. As is always the case follow the money. A big part of the standing rock protest revolves around the tribe negotiating for fat royalties to cross their land and the pipeline company routing around to avoid and the protest grew as a way to put pressure on the company. A lot of the leave it in the ground took up the cause and made a mountains out of mole hills.


  13. I really liked the article lots and it informed me about all the issues so now I will go and smash all the pipelines I see thanks to this article and your hard work thank you (meant to comment this here not in reply to someone else’s comment lel)


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