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 .
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 .
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.
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 . 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 . 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  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 . 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 , 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