The fine print on pipelines isn’t scary

Robert Bradley

Have you heard? Transporting oil through pipelines is a threat to humanity! The many accidents highlighted in the press speak for themselves.

Except that pipeline accidents are rare — and many accounts contain exaggerations. Too often, they imply that pipelines, really the energy they carry, should be phased out.

Headline Hyperbole

Welcome to the war on fossil fuels, where every mishap is portrayed as the Bad News Bears.

Consider the recent article from Michigan that Enbridge Line 5 , piping crude oil through the Great Lake State, has spilled 1.1 million gallons of oil since 1968 .

The catch is, the majority of these incidents happened decades ago. In other words, technological advances have made pipelines safer than ever.

Then there’s this: the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that “fearful” parents of children attending schools near a soon-to-be-built pipeline are demanding evacuation routes.

It’s barely mentioned that construction will be heavily regulated and subject to strict oversight.

The Real Record

Have there been accidents? Of course. But the happy truth is that rapidly advancing technology in pipeline construction and operation is improving safety.

In 2016 the number of oil pipeline accidents fell 10 percent from the previous year. Trend-wise, incidents have levelled off . That’s because any accident spurs an immediate, industry-wide response.

What’s more, nearly 70 percent of pipeline accidents in 2016 only affected operator facilities . And 60 percent of incidents leaked only miniscule amount of liquid — five barrels or less.

Relatively Safe, Too

Also consider that America’s 500,000 miles of interstate pipeline are far safer than any other method of moving crude and petroleum products.

This is evident when comparing the number of pipeline accidents to oil transportation by road and rail. Road, with 19.95 accidents per billion ton-miles, is the least safe method, followed by rail, with 2.08 miles per billion ton-miles. Oil pipelines have only .058 mishaps per billion ton-miles.

Cuomo’s Love-Hate

The statistics are so convincing that even those who oppose pipelines can’t deny their safety.

“Realistically you have to move fuel, so a pipeline is the safest way if it’s done right,” noted New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo — who has repeatedly blocked pipeline projects.

Note the qualifier “if it’s done right.” The governor likely knows that there are measures in place to ensure oil travels securely.

Pipeline operators are constantly evaluating safety procedures and launching new initiatives. Back in 2014, the industry launched the Pipeline Safety Initiative . And 100 percent of pipelines are regularly monitored , both on the ground and aerially.

No wonder 99.999 percent of crude oil shipped via pipeline reaches its destination safely.

Good Economy

Another category of untold news is the benefits of pipelines for America’s economy.

Consider the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, green-lit by President Trump . Keystone will support 42,100 jobs and generate $2 billion in earnings , while the Dakota Access has already created 12,000 jobs and $3.5 billion worth of investment.

These projects are consumer-driven and pay taxes. And oil fuels 253 million cars and trucks , 7,000 airplanes , and trains on 600 freight railroads traversing the United States.


Americans should read any news of petroleum pipeline mishaps with caution. While any spill or other accident is one too many, the trends are positive.

Pipelines are not only the safest way to move oil, but they are now safer than ever. All across the country, construction is underway on pipelines that will provide energy and jobs to millions.

Now that’s something worth reporting.

Robert L. Bradley Jr. is the founder and CEO of the Institute for Energy Research.