Are Pipelines Safer Than Rail or Truck? 

Are Pipelines Safer Than Rail or Truck? 

TLDR: Yes! Pipelines are statistically 40 times safer than rail or truck when it comes to incidents and spills. Because they are buried underground, avoid high-consequence areas, pipelines are simply less prone to accidents. Safety is our number one priority which is why Heartland Greenway will include safety measures from a state-of-the-art leak detection system to semi-monthly aerial patrol surveillance.

When it comes to pipelines, they have proven time and again to be well-established, accepted, and effective modes of energy transportation. But because we don’t see them, we often forget what a huge role they play in our everyday lives. 

As of 2021, there were approximately 2.7 million miles of regulated pipelines in the United States transporting oil, natural gas, and other products critical to our modern society, like carbon dioxide. These materials are major U.S. exports, and pipelines play an essential role in discreetly delivering an staggering amount of energy to our homes and businesses.  Even so, many people are concerned about the safety of new pipeline projects like Heartland Greenway’s 1,300-mile CO2 pipeline, asking — is transporting CO2 via pipeline safer than transporting by rail or truck?

The answer is a resounding yes. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, pipelines make up less than one one-hundredth of one percent (0.01%) of all transportation accidents in the U.S., which is significantly lower than transportation via road, rail, air, or water.

In addition to being safe, pipelines are also one of the most effective methods of transportation, moving a volume of energy products far beyond the capability of other forms. In fact, to move the amount of CO2 that the initial design capacity of Heartland Greenway will be able to transport, 10 million metric tons per year, it would require more than 450,000 trucks or 110,000 rail cars per year. Let’s explore why the efficiency of the proposed Heartland Greenway project isn’t mutually exclusive to safe, reliable transportation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Pipelines are less prone to accidents

One major advantage of pipelines is that they are less prone to accidents and spills than other modes of transportation. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), pipelines have a significantly lower incident rate per mile compared to gas and oil shipments by rail or truck. In 2019, there were just 0.012 incidents per mile of pipeline in the U.S., compared to 0.49 incidents per mile on rail and 0.47 incidents per mile by truck.

This means that pipelines are about 40 times safer than rail and 40 times safer than trucks when it comes to incidents and spills. One of the main reasons for this is that pipeline infrastructure is designed and constructed with an overabundance of safety in mind. For example, Heartland Greenway will be constructed with steel pipe that is expressly for liquid CO2. The pipe will have an external coating that protects it from corrosion in addition to cathodic protection to further mitigate potential external deterioration. We take safety a step further by burying our line five feet underground, an additional two feet deeper than the federal standard depth, to ensure the infrastructure is protected and prevent threats of external interference.

In addition to being buried far underground, Heartland Greenway’s route, along with other regulated pipelines, is strategically located. We’ve routed our pipeline to proactively avoid or mitigate the impact on specific areas of higher concern, PHMSA defines these as high consequence areas (HCA’s). HCA’s can include populated areas like cities and towns, commercially navigable waterways, and drinking water and environmentally sensitive areas.

How CO2 is different

Leaks or unplanned releases are also a concern when it comes to the use of pipelines that transport hazardous materials.  

Although they are extremely rare, it’s important to put any previous incidents into perspective and recognize that pipelines are still 4,000% safer than other modes of transportation, and even more so when they are carrying non-combustible resources, like CO2. There have been no fatalities attributed to CO2 pipelines, and since the first CO2 line was installed back in the 1970s, they continue to be one of the safest pipeline systems in operation across the United State today.  

Carbon dioxide is produced as a result of combustion, or the process of burning. This means carbon dioxide can’t support any further combustion or explosions (which is also why you find CO2 regularly in fire extinguishers). With Navigator’s comprehensive leak detection system that consists of both non-continuous and continuous monitoring components outlined below, and the rigorous testing and inspection standards that we are subject to prior to commencing operations, we will have the ability to take actions to safely contain and address any situation.

Technology to monitor and prevent incidents

Heartland Greenway will have advanced technology and systems in place to prevent and mitigate potential problems that may occur. For example, there are multiple components to our state-of-the-art leak detection system including 24/7 continuous monitoring of internal and external systems, a real-time transient model (RTTM) for leak detection, semi-monthly aerial patrol surveillance, and strategically located CO2 detection devices. Another technology we are extremely excited about is the fiber optic sensing cables, which will be installed in a conduit immediately above the pipeline. This fiber will constantly be sensing for any changes in temperature that may indicate a leak but also vibrations that may indicate excavation is occurring nearby. That information is transmitted back to our control room in real-time, and allows our team to respond more efficiently and precisely, because we have a specific X-Y coordinate on the line for the identified system alert.

Should the system be alerted for any reason, specially trained and certified employees can quickly shut down the system and manage and coordinate all response efforts within minutes.

Strict safety regulations

Pipelines also have strict regulations and oversight to ensure that they are operated safely and efficiently, and Heartland Greenway will be subject to these regulations. PHMSA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is responsible for regulating the transportation of hazardous materials, including CO2, through pipelines in the United States. This federal government agency has robust standards for pipeline construction, maintenance, and operation, and it conducts regular inspections to ensure that pipelines are in compliance with these standards. Additionally, those safety regulations are continually being evaluated and reviewed to ensure transportation infrastructure is held to a high standard. If and when PHMSA updates their regulations, operators are required to work with the agency to develop a plan to bring the asset into compliance, there is no grandfathering of existing infrastructure when it comes to pipeline safety regulations!

In the case of the Heartland Greenway CO2 pipeline, we not only meet these strict regulations, we exceed them in critical areas such as design requirements, construction, leak detection, pressure testing, and operations.  This includes the implementation of computational pipeline monitoring (CPM) system, in addition to the installation of numerous remote controlled mainline valves to allow for prompt response and isolation of line segments in the unlikely event of an emergency,

At Navigator, safety is not only a top priority, it’s part of our core values. Because of this, every employee completes an Operator Qualification Program to meet all PHMSA requirements. Workers also complete additional training for CO2 handling, measurement, and sensor calibration. Navigator is committed to developing state-of-the-art infrastructure that will operate safely for decades to come.