Although most domestically produced oil, natural gas, ethanol and natural gas liquids (NGL) are transported without incident, concerns remain over the safety of transporting energy supplies via rail, according to a report by the nonprofit National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM). Meanwhile, pipelines and barges appear to have more comprehensive safety systems in place.

In the new report, “Safely Transporting Hazardous Liquids and Gasses in a Changing U.S. Energy Landscape,” researchers from NASEM’s Committee for Study of Domestic Transportation of Petroleum, Natural Gas, and Ethanol said federal regulators should also take steps to prevent future accidents involving railroads, pipelines and barges.

“Pipelines and barges have accommodated major portions of the growth in domestic energy liquids and gases, and they have done so without major new safety problems and within the basic framework of their longstanding regulatory and safety assurance systems,” NASEM said Wednesday.

“To the credit of transportation service providers from all of the modes as well as their safety regulators, the vast majority of these energy supplies have been transported without incident, enabling the country to capitalize on its new energy resources and manage the safety risks associated with its transportation.”

However, there have been problems, which the committee took notice of shortly after it began studying transport issues in late 2015. That year, federal regulators blamed a broken rail for a fiery oil train derailment in West Virginia in February, while a federal bankruptcy court judge in Maine approved a C$445 million ($344 million) settlement to compensate the victims of a derailment and explosion in Quebec in July 2013. The committee broke down its findings for each of the three transport modes.

According to the committee, railroads had little experience with transporting crude oil and ethanol in large quantities before 2005. In response to a surge in domestic production, the railroads began transporting hazardous energy liquids “in tank cars that had not previously carried these flammable materials in bulk and with shippers that lacked experience transporting them.”

Safer Tank Car Development

After a series of derailments, regulators and the railroad industry began to focus on reducing the severity of such incidents by developing safer tank cars.

“Railroads have an opportunity to create a more robust safety assurance system for moving crude oil and ethanol, one that resembles those of the maritime and pipeline carriers,” the committee said, adding that it had found an “incomplete understanding of the dynamics of tank-car unit train derailments and a lack of clear guidelines and resources for state and local emergency responders continues to present safety risks.

“As the tank cars that are compliant with new design specifications are being phased in, tank cars built to older specifications that are less crashworthy and less resistant to thermal failures may continue to be used for flammable liquids traffic for several years. Preventing the derailment of these cars is imperative.”

The committee also reported that while first responders are more prepared for rail incidents, there is room for improvement. “Because trains moving crude oil and ethanol remain a relatively a new phenomenon, many of the communities traversed by this traffic lack familiarity with responding to large-scale incidents involving trainloads of flammable liquids.

“Industry and government authorities face a continuing challenge in ensuring that appropriate response procedures are widely known and that existing training opportunities are exploited, especially among rural communities that are served by volunteer fire departments.”

Major Incidents Rare

According to NASEM, oil transmission pipeline mileage grew by more than 40% between 2010 and 2016. During that timeframe, the rate of major incidents involving pipelines remained generally stable, although “periodic high-consequence events” have caused some year-to-year fluctuations. That said, the committee found such incidents to be so rare that it was difficult to come to any conclusions about underlying risk.

“Although the committee found no new safety problems have emerged from the increased use of pipelines transporting larger amounts of domestic oil and gas, substantially more pipeline mileage and higher traffic volumes may result in more pipeline releases over time, simply because of the increase in exposure,” the committee said. “The safety impact, however, is likely to depend on the extent to which new pipeline technologies, leak monitoring systems, and more vigilant and capable integrity management programs are effective in protecting the newer pipelines and the older ones that connect to them.”

Incidents involving the transport of energy supplies via barge were even rarer. The committee said it found no reports of ethanol or NGL spills over the past 10 years, and only rare reports of crude oil spills.

“A series of incidents 30 years ago led to statutory and regulatory safety reforms that produced a robust and anticipatory safety culture that has dealt well with fluctuations in the demand for oil and other energy liquids and can serve as a model for other energy transport modes,” the committee said.

Among its recommendations to federal regulators, the committee said the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) should conduct a comprehensive review of responses to transportation safety challenges since 2005, taking note of successes and failures. That review would help PHMSA develop a more robust safety assurance system, as well as a better system for anticipating problems beforehand.

“PHMSA should also ensure federal emergency preparedness grant allocations are responsive to the needs of communities that face new and unfamiliar risks as a result of changes in energy liquids and gas shipments, review the extent that emergency responders are taking advantage of training opportunities, and tailor programs to enable and incentivize higher levels of participation,” the committee said.

The committee also recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) “enable and incentivize more frequent and comprehensive inspections of rail routes with regular energy liquids traffic as well as enable the use of new capabilities in sensor, high-resolution imaging, and autonomous systems technologies.” Another suggestion was for PHMSA and FRA to study tank car design and other factors that could play a role in the severity of multi-car derailments.