LONDON Every fatal accident is a terrible tragedy, prompting searching questions about how it could have happened and whether more could have been done to prevent the loss of life.
The fireball that engulfed the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic after a runaway train derailed and exploded in the middle of the night is already stirring a debate about the safety of shipping crude oil and petroleum products by rail.
After every major incident, investigators from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Chemical Safety Board, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and their equivalents abroad conduct investigations and make recommendations to prevent another future disaster.
The history of industrial safety is largely measured by a series of catastrophic accidents, each of which sparked a major investigation and inspired improvements that have made transport and workplaces less hazardous in future.
"The deadly train derailment in Quebec this weekend is set to bring intense scrutiny to the dramatic growth in North America of shipping crude oil by rail, a century old practice unexpectedly revived by the surge in shale production," Reuters reported on Sunday.
At least five people were killed on Sunday and another 40 were missing after the train carrying North Dakota crude, one of 10 such shipments per month, exploded in the town centre.
"The frequency of the number of incidents that have occurred raises legitimate questions that the industry and government need to look at," according to Jim Hall, a former chairman of the NTSB, the U.S. agency charged with finding the cause of accidents and recommending safety improvements.
"The issue here is: are they expanding too rapidly?" Hall added.
The New York Times asked: "Is it safer and less environmentally destructive to move huge quantities of crude oil by train or by pipeline?" ("Deadly derailment in Quebec underlines oil debate" July 7).
Supporters of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline are poised to cite the accident as a reason to speed its approval, claiming pipelines have a better safety record than trains.
Environmental groups, which have strongly opposed Keystone, are no more enthusiastic about rail and see little difference between the two modes of transportation. Their preference is to reduce dependence on fossil fuels to cut all such incidents.
But it would be counter-productive to over-generalize from a single accident to conclude that crude-by-rail is not safe.
OIL INDUSTRY SPILLS
Notwithstanding occasional high-profile spills, the oil industry has a fairly good safety record. Roughly 90 million barrels of crude and refined products are consumed every day worldwide. Almost all of it is produced, transported, refined and used safely. The quantity spilled or involved in other accidents is tiny.
Just 8 million tonnes (1 tonne = 1.102 tons) of crude and products have been spilled in the 100 largest disasters since 1960, less than half of one day's global production and consumption, according to Merv Fingas, an expert on environmental cleanup and former chief of Environment Canada's Environment Emergencies Technology Center ("The basics of oil spill cleanup" 2013).
BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster may have spilled 500,000 tonnes into the Gulf of Mexico, but it is not typical. In fact, there are 12 spills of more than 4,000 liters of crude or refined products recorded on average every day in Canada, and about 100 in the United States, according to Fingas. Most of them are fairly small and go unremarked in the media.
"Human error, directly or indirectly, causes 30 to 50 percent of oil spills; equipment failure or malfunction causes 20 percent to 40 percent," Fingas explains.
PIPELINES AND RAILS
Transporting crude by pipeline is probably safer than sending it via rail, but both modes of transport have a good safety record.
According to the NTSB, over 34,000 people were killed in transport accidents in the United States in 2011. More than 93 percent were killed on the highways (32,000) in cars (12,000), light trucks and vans (9,000) or as pedestrians (4,500).
Other forms of transport result in far fewer deaths. A total of 759 people were killed in rail accidents, and the majority of those were trespassing on the track. Pipeline explosions accounted for just 14 deaths, and of these incidents just one fatality was caused by a caused by a pipeline carrying petroleum.
The U.S. pipeline network has grown rapidly over the last two decades, and pipelines now carry record volumes of gas and hazardous liquids, but the number of serious incidents causing death or injury has actually declined, and the volume of liquids and gas lost in spills and explosions is much smaller, according to PHMSA.
There are now 175,000 miles of pipelines carrying crude and other hazardous products in the United States, 320,000 miles of gas transmission and gathering pipelines, and 2 million miles of distribution mains (enough to encircle the Earth 100 times).
But in the three years from 2010 to 2012, just two people were killed per year by incidents involving liquids pipelines, and three more injured, according to PHMSA records. Three more were killed pear year by gas transmission pipelines and 23 injured.
Notwithstanding occasional explosions and spills, pipelines have proved safe, and the number of fatalities and amount of materials lost per mile of pipeline is falling.
Tank cars carried by rail may be somewhat riskier, but the statistical record so far shows it is much safer than carrying oil by truck.
DEATH ON THE FARM
Farms and trucking cause far more fatal injuries than do the oil and gas industries.
In 2011, a total of 4,693 people were killed at work in the United States (about 10 percent of them were murdered on the job). The oil and gas industries killed 112, but that compares with 485 fatalities in trucking and 566 in agriculture, forestry and fishing.
Adjusting for the number of people employed and hours worked, there were 16 deaths per 100,000 full-time workers in mining, oil and gas, more than four times the rate for the private sector as a whole (3.7 deaths), but much better than trucking (26 deaths) and agriculture (26 deaths) let alone logging (77 deaths).
Railways killed just under 10 workers out of every 100,000, according to OSHA's Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.
The point of reciting all these statistics is not to suggest lessons cannot be learned from the tragedy in Quebec. It would be surprising if unsafe practices had not started to emerge as the industry has rapidly scaled up in the last five years.
The accident investigation will identify unsafe operating practices and correct them. Accident investigations have a good track record of forcing improvements.
Lessons will need to be learned from the Quebec tragedy, but it does not automatically mean that all crude shipments should be halted or converted to pipelines.
(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)
(editing by Jane Baird)