In March, an interstate oil pipeline burst near Mayflower, Ark., spilling about 5,000 barrels of oil. Last month, a train carrying oil derailed and exploded in North Dakota. Another oil train explosion in July killed 47 people in Lac-Magantic, Quebec.
“The danger of oil by rail is that it passes through communities and is closer to a lot of urban centers,” said Michael Marx, director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Oil campaign. “The danger with pipelines is that when they break, oftentimes by the time we stop it, we've had a much bigger spill. Those tend to be big spills, and they're building bigger pipelines to transport more oil and transport it under pressure.”
The Sierra Club is working to move the country away from oil and other fossil fuels and toward renewable energy, Marx said.
“Our conclusion is that this should not be a question of more pipelines or more rail. It should be a question of clean energy and fuel efficiency verses extreme oil, which is our source of the future,” he said. “That's the crossroads. Do you go down the road of mass transit electric vehicles, people on bicycles and fuel efficiency or do you go down the road of high-risk, extreme fuels?”
The pipeline companies, however, say they are continuing to improve their maintenance programs.
“We have 24-hour-a-day monitoring out of a control center in Canada. The lines are monitored from the control center on a 24-hour basis,” Enbridge Inc. spokeswoman Lara Burhenn said. “Those operators can monitor lines and look for any kind of anomaly in pressure. The instant they see anything out of order, they can shut down the line and dispatch a local worker to look at the ground to see if there is anything that is discoverable. It may then warrant an excavation.”
Burhenn said the company plans to spend about $4 billion over the next four years on pipeline maintenance.
“A properly maintained pipeline can last indefinitely,” she said. “We have lines in the northern part of our system that were built in 1949 that our operational people say looks brand new.”