Crude Oil Transportation Is Facing New Challenges

The news is filled with apocalyptic warnings regarding modern dependence on fossil fuels. Burgeoning gas and oil costs, air pollution and a changing climate are all part of the scenario. Although alternate energy sources are catching up, petroleum is by far still the fuel of choice. It supports the entire world economy, and will do so for the foreseeable future. Crude oil transportation makes this reliance possible.

Pipelines carry much of this toxic material. Freshly extracted petroleum is not a benign substance. Rather than being a single uniform liquid, it is a mixture of chemicals that vary according to geography. Spectacular accidents off southern Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico are recent historical illustrations of the environmental destruction a transport mishap can leave behind.

Big oil companies are an easy target to vilify, but most people have no intention or interest in divorcing themselves from the benefits oil provides. It powers our automobiles, and is used to create most plastics and other consumer products. In some areas it is still burned to generate electricity, to heat structures during winter, to move products across country, and for many related purposes.

Most easily accessed oil regions have already been exploited. Canada has experienced a production boom in the northern shale oil fields, and the United States has become a top producer once again through the development of hydraulic fracking, a method of extraction using high-pressure liquid to force deposits to the surface. Getting that oil to market without harming people or the environment has become an important issue.

The least dangerous transport involves sealed pipelines. Without them, the amount produced in the Canadian north during just one day would require over 15,000 standard tank trucks, and almost 5000 railway tankers. Even though moving the liquid under pressure is practical, there is never a guarantee of absolute safety, as recent American pipeline ruptures have demonstrated.

Oil tankers are a familiar urban harbor sight, and many pass through war zones such as the Persian Gulf. Ocean spills are difficult to contain and clean up, but according to industry sources, only 8% of that crude pollution exists as the result of tanker accidents. While that figure is comparatively enormous, it does point out the advantages of shipping by sea rather than over land.

Most concerning is the growing practice of moving crude by rail and over the highways, made necessary by a dearth of pipeline infrastructure. There have been notable fiery accidents both in Canada and the United States involving rail cars, and shippers must now notify local authorities when a train is scheduled to pass. A ship explosion is tragic, but a derailed oil tanker becomes an urban bomb.

Short of halting production, there is no easy solution to the problem. As regulators urge shippers to improve safety, residents adopt a not-in-my-backyard attitude, and both sides are enmeshed in political controversies that cloud the issue. The modern world is not going to stop using oil until forced to do so, and producers have the responsibility of shipping their product safely.

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