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Study finds air pollution and GHG costs of crude-by-rail nearly 2x pipeline costs; much larger than spill and accidents costs

Researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh have found that the air pollution and greenhouse gas costs of shipping crude by rail are nearly twice as large as those for oil pipelines. Further, their estimates of air pollution and greenhouse gas costs are much larger than estimates of spill and accidents costs—more than twice as big for rail and more than eight times as big for pipelines.

The findings of their study, published by the National Bureau of Economic research, suggest that the policy debate surrounding crude oil transportation has put too much relative weight on accidents and spills, while overlooking a far more serious source of external cost: air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Air pollution and greenhouse gas damages for transportation by railroad and pipelines to the gulf coast. The pollution and greenhouse gas costs equal $1,000 per 1 million barrel-miles via rail transportation compared to just under $400 in damages from spills and accidents. Via pipelines, it costs $500 in pollution and emissions costs per 1 million barrel miles while it costs about $50 for spills and accidents. Clay et al. Click to enlarge.

Movements of petroleum products, particularly crude oil, have received enormous media attention. Almost all of the attention has focused on spill and accident costs despite the fact that air pollution and greenhouse gas costs are also likely to be significant.

Pollution emissions for pipelines and rail differ from one another in three important ways. First, while emissions from trains occur along the transportation route, emissions from pipelines manifest at the power plants that generate the electricity consumed by pumping stations. The distance between these power plants and the associated pumping stations can be quite large. Second, ground-level emissions, such as those from locomotives, tend to be more harmful than the same level of emissions released from tall smokestacks at power stations. Third, the existing railroad infrastructure moves goods through population centers. In contrast, power plants are typically located in less densely-populated areas. This difference matters for pollution exposure, because the emissions from trains moving through cities are likely to contact many more people than those emitted at power plants.

—Clay et al.

To build their estimates, the researchers used data on locomotive diesel consumption; pipeline pumping station electricity consumption; locomotive and power plant emission factors; and an integrated assessment model which maps county level emissions to costs for counties affected by the emissions. Their estimations were also based on The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s 2015 study.

The paper is the first to compare the costs of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and spills and accidents across rail and pipelines.

The study estimated that the air pollution and greenhouse gas costs of moving a fully loaded 100-car train (unit train) of crude oil from North Dakota to the Gulf Coast are about $150,000 and from North Dakota to the East Coast are $210,000. However, the air pollution and greenhouse gas costs of moving an equivalent amount of oil by pipeline to the Gulf Coast are $78,000.

The total estimated air pollution and greenhouse gas damages for oil shipped by rail from North Dakota in 2014 exceed $420 million. These estimates are a lower bound, the researchers noted, as in their analysis they assumed a train does not idle. Idling, especially in major cities such as Chicago, is very costly.

While the recent downward trend in crude prices has led to marked reductions in the movement of crude oil, other petroleum products continue to be moved by rail in large volumes. The issue of the relative costs of moving these products by rail and pipelines extends to those products as well. The air pollution and greenhouse gas costs of transporting different petroleum products will vary with the characteristics of the product and the pipeline. The results presented here suggest that further research on the air pollution and greenhouse gas costs of transporting these products is necessary.

—Clay et al.


  • Karen Clay, Akshaya Jha, Nicholas Muller, Randall Walsh (2017) “The External Costs of Transporting Petroleum Products by Pipelines and Rail: Evidence From Shipments of Crude Oil from North Dakota” NBER Working Paper No. 23852 doi: 10.3386/w23852



Well known facts but many people will still object to (safer) new pipelines.

We could switch to e-vehicles but the same people would object to new power lines, wind mills, new NPPs and solar farms?


If you destroy the farmland aquifers in six states, the cost is HUGE!


Sooner or latter, part of the fresh water from the Mississippi (and other rivers) may have to be pumped in to refill aquifers and for general use.

Alternatively, Solar energy could be used to desalt sea water.
Salt disposal may become a long term challenge?


A wind mill is for milling (grinding grain) A wind turbine is for generating power.


What about transporting crude by truck. I live in the Salt Lake City area. We have a steady stream of trucks transporting crude from oil fields in western Wyoming and northeastern Utah to the five refineries just north of SLC. There is some rail transportation and use of pipelines but I believe that trucking is a large component of the local oil transportation.


The idea is not to use fossil fuels of any kind since they pollute the land, air and water in many ways, i.e., train siding spills and accidents, leaking pipe lines, pipeline blowouts; oil drilling flares, smog and GHG, etc. Fossil fuel(FF) is costly because of it's very destructive nature.

It's sad to see the FF industries following the same cover-up path as the cigarette companies did. The FF industry works hard to keep on polluting by buying off politicians and funding propaganda campaigns against clean energy when they should be investing in the transition to clean energy and re-inventing their businesses to switch over. The people might even believe they are concerned about something other than profiting by polluting...perhaps their stockholders would have faith in the management if they changed their business plan and joined in the transition. Their stock might even gain value in the long run.


REs (Solar-Water-Wind-Geothermal-Waves), well harnessed and managed can supply many times the energy required by 20+B inhabitants.

H2, batteries, pumped Hydro and other forms of storables can be further developed to manage intermitent e-energy sources for 24/7 usages. Future extended range BEVs with larger 100 to 200+ kWh batteries and residential storage units could become essential/convinient to store excess/surplus REs.

Current polluting fossil fuels should/must be progressively phased out. All electric homes and electrified vehicles are effective and possible now. It's up to all of us to make the move!!!!!

William Stockwell

Agreed HarveyD, one thing I think gets too little attention as a way to cut fossil fuels is geothermal exchange heating and cooling - it can eliminate the use of fossil fuels for the heating and cut down the electricity needed for cooling by two thirds- basically all the industry needs is some economies of scale and up front financing- we need a couple more Elon Musk types to get the price from $20000-25000 installed to more like $10000 installed.


Excellent idea; and, from what I have read would not be that difficult to implement. I think it's a matter of someone who can be trusted, as you say like Elon Musk, to introduce the idea. Send him a tweet and see what he says.


Heat Pumps using underground ccts as an exchanger are already in use in many places. Rather costly??? We use a water cooled heat pump with excellent results. Can keep the place very comfortable year round. Not installed/designed to supply hot water (yet).

Still wonder which technology (batteries or FCs or future technology ) will gain market share? Will they both survive or die?

Larz Larzen

Lithium's costly, and most has to be imported, unless they come up with a chemistry that bypasses it, and other REs. FCs are making breakthroughs using little or no precious metals, and California is still pushing on with H2 infrastructure. Batteries are huge, heavy, bulky, and degrade over time. The energy lobby would favor H2 as well, so....I think the bet is an easy one, though the auto manufacturers seem to favor BEVs, Hybrid electric-petrol vehicles and PHEVs at present. I think they'll change over to H2. Lighter cars, quicker re-fueling, rather than charging. The infrastructure will come. The oil companies will build it when sentiment starts to favor FCVs.


What will come first:

1) Extended range (500 miles) BEVs with 150+ KW ultra quick charge lighter battery packs and 600+ KW charging facilities.

2) Extended range (500 miles) ultra quick refil FCEVs with much lower cost H2 and cross country self service H2 stations.

3) A new competitive technology for clean ground vehicles.

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