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Pipelines or rail – which mode of transportation of natural resources is cleaner?

Posted December 8, 2016

We need lots of resources in order to satisfy our energy needs. However, these resources are often times localized – our cities are not. This means that oil, bitumen and other substances have to be transported long ways. But which mean of transportation is better – pipelines or railways? A new research from University of Alberta analysed this question.

People protest new pipelines, but in many cases they are much cleaner than alternatives. Image credit: Stan Shebs via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

People protest new pipelines, but in many cases they are much cleaner than alternatives. Image credit: Stan Shebs via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

Transportation of oil and bitumen is a very important subject for Alberta, a region in Canada. Of course, the main objective is to preserve the environment, but at the same time oil and bitumen are important for the economy. Now scientists found that pipelines are actually more environmentally friendly than rail when transporting oil and bitumen long distances. In fact, the difference is pretty huge – pipeline transportation of these resources is around 61-77 % greener in this regard. Scientists compared energy consumption in construction and operation for both transportation methods, which produced these accurate and reliable results.

People are often protesting pipeline construction because of environmental concerns. However, this research, conducted while a new pipeline in Alberta region is being planned, shows that this method of transportation is much more environmentally friendly than its alternatives. However, it is not as simple as it looks. Amit Kumar, lead author of the study, explained: “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”.

Distance and barrels per day are the most important variables policy makers should consider when choosing the best transportation method. In this regard, results of this research are applicable around the world. Scientists performed some computer modelling, which helped them evaluate energy use and greenhouse gas emissions for each mode of transportation. And sure enough, they found that rail is not as clean as it looks. However, they say that pipelines can be even more environmentally friendly if clean energy, such as hydroelectric power, is used to pump the resources.

Fossil fuels are still extremely important for our energy production and economy. Although we will be moving more and more towards renewable energy sources, now it is very important to improve current modes of transportation to make our resources just that little bit more environmentally friendly.


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