Protests and government indecision over whether key pipeline projects — like the Dakota Pipeline and Keystone Pipeline — would be approved have ensured they remain a popular news item. While pipelines operate safely most of the time, an accident can lead to a major oil spill or natural gas explosion.
This was the case when a ruptured pipeline released crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River in 2010. After multiple millions of dollars and several years of enforcement and cleanup efforts, over 1.2 million gallons of oil have been recovered from the river. Honest concern about infrequent but potentially substantial accidents help drive the resistance to pipelines.
But if it is possible for human health and the natural environment to be affected so heavily by an accident, it is reasonable to ask: Why would we ever expose ourselves to the risks of using pipeline technology?
We can answer that question by considering if it would be better to forego the use of the fuels we move by pipelines. If we don’t use the fuels, we won’t need the pipelines. If the answer to that question prompts us to continue using them, we should then ask a second question: Are there safer ways to transport fuels?
We should understand what life is like without access to oil, gas or other petroleum-based fuels. Alex Epstein’s book “The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels” tells a story about how limited access to energy restricts the use of essential medical technologies such as ultrasounds or incubators. Fewer options for treatment mean less care for patients, which can lead to deaths that could have been prevented.
Lacking access to an ultrasound machine in a Kenyan hospital, doctors could not tell when one expecting mother began to have complications during her pregnancy. By the time the mother and doctors could tell the unborn child was struggling, a rushed cesarean section proved to be too little, too late. Doctors were unable to keep the baby from suffocating in utero.
Another child was born at the same hospital, substantially underweight and unable to survive without an incubator. Lacking access to reliable electricity, the hospital never even considered purchasing this type of equipment, and the child could not be saved. Either of these outcomes would be extreme and unusual in North American hospitals. But without reliable energy, the Kenyan hospital staff could do little more than grieve with the families.
Petroleum is the base of many products we use today, including transportation fuels, electricity, plastics, synthetic rubbers, chemicals, medicines and toiletries. All but the most basic of North American activities would cease without it. Additionally, we need fossil fuels to make many products that are not petroleum-based, including minerals and agricultural products. Only the most rudimentary, locally produced products would be available to us without oil and natural gas.
So, we must continue using petroleum, but are there other — safer — options to transporting oil and gas? As I noted in my March 13, 2017, statement to the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board, “The benefits of using liquid fuels clearly outweigh the harms, and transporting those fuels by pipeline is safer than other comparable options. A 2013 Manhattan Institute study showed that road transportation has a twenty-times- higher incidence rate and rail transportation has double the rate of incidents of pipelines.”
I continued, “The Association of Oil Pipeline reports that today, 99.999 percent of all petroleum products transferred by pipeline arrive at their destination safely. This is no small feat when one considers that there are over 9,700 miles of pipelines in the state of Michigan, and 2.6 million miles of pipelines across the United States.”
There are times when using these fuels will have negative effects. But as the Kalamazoo River example shows, it is possible to suffer a substantial setback, then use the energy and technologies that we have to repair the damage and work to avoid similar failures in the future.
We recognize that while there are risks associated with the use of petroleum-based fuels and products, there are also many lifesaving and life-extending benefits. Therefore, we must continue to use them if we wish to improve human well-being and — yes — to protect the environment.