Pipelines easier on the environment than rail

Researchers find pipelines are the greener option for moving high volumes of oil and bitumen over long distances.

Bev Betkowski - 13 December 2016

(Edmonton) Pipelines are more environmentally friendly than rail when hauling oil and bitumen long distances, according to a new University of Alberta study-and probably the best way to export Alberta oil, according to one of the researchers.

After comparing the energy consumption in construction and operation for both transportation methods, researchers in the Faculty of Engineering discovered that pipeline transportation produced between 61 and 77 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than rail.

The findings, published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology, come in the wake of federal approval for the hotly contested Trans Mountain pipeline and for Enbridge's Line 3. The projects, if built, will pump nearly a million more barrels of oil a day from Alberta's oilsands to global markets.

At that volume, pipelines like the Trans Mountain project would be the lower-emission option, said Amit Kumar, professor of mechanical engineering and lead author on the study.

"If you're looking at shorter transportation distances and smaller capacities, rail is probably more efficient, but most of the crude and bitumen exported from Alberta goes to U.S. refineries, which are long distances and at a large scale," he said, noting that the Trans Mountain pipeline alone is 1,150 kilometres long and can pump up to 890,000 barrels per day.

"If we have to choose how we get Alberta oil to markets, pipelines are the way to go because of the lower greenhouse gas emission footprint. When you are looking at longer distances, you have to be energy-efficient, and a pipeline can transport much more oil than a railroad can."

Distance and barrels per day should play a key role for policy-makers in deciding what transportation methods to approve, he added. The study is another way of viewing the issue, Kumar said.

"There's not a lot of information out there based on fundamental science looking at all aspects of pipeline transportation, but we looked at all the aspects."

Through computer modelling, the researchers ran scenarios for both rail and pipeline transport of bitumen and crude oil for a range of capacities and distances, evaluating energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for each mode of transportation.

"We looked at the whole system over the life cycle," said Kumar. "We looked at how much energy is put into manufacturing equipment and components of the pipeline, and how much energy is needed to transport a barrel of bitumen. We took it all into account and estimated the greenhouse gas emissions over that life cycle."

The same concept was applied to construction and operation of railroad track, tankers and locomotives. For amounts over 50,000 barrels of bitumen per day, pipeline is more efficient per unit, Kumar noted.

As well, Kumar suggested greenhouse gas emissions from pipelines can be even further reduced if they are pumped using clean energy such as hydroelectric power, already being used by some provinces including British Columbia and Quebec.