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Oil spills - more on the rails

May 25, 2013

Alberta’s Energy Resources Conservation Board has produced a time series map that shows all the oil spills in the past 37 years.  The transport of bitumen and oil products from the oil sands by rail is rapidly increasing.

Alberta’s had an average of two crude oil spills a day, every day for the past 37 years. That makes 28,666 crude oil spills in total, plus another 31,453 spills of just about any other substance you can think of putting in a pipeline – from salt water to liquid petroleum. The ERCB’s time series is provided on link a).

The ERCB’s data does not include any spills from some of the biggest pipelines – those crossing provincial or national borders. These fall under National Energy Board jurisdiction. For the 53 per cent of spills from somewhere other than a pipeline, such as oil wells and pumping stations, anything under 2 cubic metres (2,000 litres, or about twelve and a half barrels) does not get counted.

A rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline by President Barack Obama would push more of Canada’s $73 billion oil exports onto trains, which register almost three times more spills than pipelines. According to the Brookings Institute “The evidence is so overwhelming that railroads are far less safe than pipelines, that it would be a serious mistake to use these recent spills to say that Keystone is unsafe.”

As much as 425,000 barrels a day of Canadian crude will move on trains by 2017 if Keystone XL is denied, 3.7 times the current estimated 115,000 barrels a day that accounts for 5 percent of western Canada’s production, analysts at RBC Capital Markets estimated in an April 3 report. Rail may move 300,000 barrels if the pipeline is approved.


Pipelines are cheaper and safer than rail for moving large volumes of crude oil. Killing the Keystone would put pressure on railways to carry more bitumen. The rapidly increasing use of rail transport means likely higher numbers of rail-spills.