The increasingly brutal police response to protests over the construction of The Dakota Access Pipeline has pushed the debate over the safety of oil infrastructure into the national spotlight. From the beginning of their anti-pipeline organizing, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has voiced their concerns about the environmental impact of the project, pointing to the fact that an earlier proposal for the pipeline route was rejected due to concerns over potential contamination of Bismarck, North Dakota’s water supply.
Oil industry supporters argue that pipelines are safer alternative to hauling fuel by tanker trucks or freight trains. “Environmental analysis comparing pipelines to rail finds pipelines will result in fewer incidents, barrels released, personal injuries, and greenhouse gas emissions,” says John Stoody, a spokesperson for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, in a statement to CityLab. He cites an environmental impact statement conducted by the U.S. State Department comparing the impact of rail delivery of crude oil to that of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Additionally, a 2013 study from the conservative Manhattan Institute found that road transportation had an annual accident rate of 19.95 incidents per billion ton miles and rail transportation had 2.08 incidents per billion ton miles, compared to 0.89 incidents per billion ton miles for natural gas transmission and 0.58 serious incidents per billion ton miles for hazardous liquid pipelines.
Environmentalists, however, point to a lack of adequate state and federal regulation and the difficulties of maintaining millions of miles of aging pipeline infrastructure in their warnings about the dangers of spills, fires, and other accidents. And data from the federal government suggests such concerns should be taken seriously. Over the last twenty years, more than 9,000 significant pipeline-related incidents have taken place nationwide, according to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The accidents have resulted in 548 deaths, 2,576 injuries, and over $8.5 billion in financial damages. (Not counted in this total are thousands of less “significant” pipeline-related malfunctions.)