Massive oil spills, natural gas explosions, produced water leaks, and train derailments are environmental and human tragedies. These rare but terrible events grab headlines and linger in the public memory for years or even decades. The extent of these issues are often difficult to conceptualize – and that is part of what leads people to react in extremes.

The truth is that the U.S. develops, transports, and consumes such massive volumes of gases, liquids, and other hazardous materials that the amount leaked, spilled, or lost in accidents is a minuscule percentage. It is still true that the relatively small proportion lost can be devastating, but that must be balanced against the devastation of not having these resources transported in the first place.

Fossil resources are used far beyond generating power. It is virtually impossible to go about a day in America today without encountering a product using, reliant on, or derived from natural gas or petroleum. Industries from agriculture to pharmaceuticals and beyond require these to generate power and as inputs for plastics, fabrics, paints, medicines, vehicles, roads, cooking, heating, and far more. These gases and liquids are not substitutes for wind and solar, they are building blocks of modern life. That is why transporting them is vital and we must focus on how to do so in ways that are safe, effective, efficient, clean, and resilient. The available means to transport these resources are pipelines, rail, trucks, and water vessels.

The good news is that across all methods, over 99.999 percent of all oil, gas, and hazardous materials arrive safely and effectively at their destination. Given the over 16 billion barrels of crude and refined petroleum and 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas moved around the U.S. each year, even a thousandth of a percent lost can add up. Yet there is no perfect transportation system, and effectiveness exceeding 99.999 percent is as close to perfect as we will find in this lifetime. Thanks to U.S. ingenuity, innovation, economic efficiency, environmental stewardship, and strong regulatory oversight, no matter how we move these products, only a fraction of a percent is lost annually.

What varies is the frequency, severity, and cause of leaks and spills among transportation methods. While tank trucks carrying gasoline or diesel fuel may spill more frequently because of repeated hook ups and connections at gas stations, they spill the smallest volumes and do so on concrete or less sensitive areas. Yet trucks are uniquely vulnerable to accidents and wrecks on the roadways, either due to driver attention, other drivers, or weather conditions.

For rail, accidents can occur in urban or rural areas and can spill when transporting hazardous material to and from the tanker cars. Derailments are rare, but can also occur threatening the environment and communities. Still, over 99.99 percent of petroleum products moved by rail are safely delivered.

Pipelines, which move the largest volumes of hazardous materials, also pass through rural and urban areas. While losing less than 0.001 percent of the resources moving through them, they produce the largest loss given their annual haul. Even still, automatic shutoff and remote monitoring continually drive down both the percentage of oil and gas lost and the absolute quantity year over year. Threats from equipment and material failure, corrosion, and third party excavation may lead to losses, but high quality material solutions, training, and the damage prevention process go a long way in promoting the high safety record.

The other factors at play include cost, speed, and climate impact of the transportation method itself. To move hazardous liquids, the first consideration is the safety and effectiveness of the transportation vessel. But with incredibly safe methods all around, these secondary and peripheral considerations become incredibly important. When considering these, each method has its own positives and limitations.

Pipelines emerge incredibly strong, as they already exceed 99.999 percent effectiveness, while also providing fast and straight forward delivery from point A to point B. They also generate low emissions from pumps and compressor stations, which have declined over time. In contrast, both rail and trucks use diesel or other fuel to move cargo, generating direct tailpipe emissions over hundreds or thousands of track or road miles. The added logistics of rail yards and road congestion further slows the speed of delivery. However, trucks have the most flexibility to reroute and deliver to remote areas not bound by existing infrastructure like pipelines and train tracks.

These considerations are critical, because the movement of hazardous material is essential for modern and daily life. We rely on natural gas and petroleum for our clothing, homes, vehicles, medicines, food preparation and packaging, heating, cooling, and energy. Even if we phase out the need for fossil resources pulled from the ground for energy, and instead rely on other renewable forms of power, we will require these hazardous material inputs for other needs. This makes pipelines, rail, trucks, and other transportation methods essential going forward.

As we move on to new and more environmentally and atmospherically conscious practices and policies, these transportation methods will remain vital. Movement of renewable natural gas, carbon dioxide, and other substances will take on new importance. Transporting these substances – to use them, refine them, or permanently store them – will be best done through methods with high safety and effectiveness records. Thankfully, all available methods currently boast higher than 99.99 percent effectiveness. From there, using low-cost and environmentally conscious methods is most important. Taking advantage of existing infrastructure already in place, like pipelines, may be the best option.


Learn more about How the U.S. Moves Hazardous Material here.


Written by Benjamin Dierker, Director of Public Policy


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.