Carbon footprint: Pipelines trump rail on a large scale

University of Alberta study compares emissions involved in bitumen transportation

Pipelines versus rail—it’s all a matter of scale.

That’s the key takeaway from a recent University of Alberta study comparing the carbon footprint of the two methods of transporting bitumen.

U of A mechanical engineering professor Amit Kumar found that pipelines create less greenhouse gas emissions than rail—anywhere from 61 to 77 percent less—when transporting large capacities of crude oil over long distances. Rail, meanwhile, is more efficient for small-scale transportation of less than 50,000 barrels a day over short distances.

“Most of the crude and bitumen exported from Alberta goes to U.S. refineries, which are long distances and at a large scale,” Kumar tells the Edmonton Journal. “(For) what we export in Alberta, larger amount and longer distance, I’d say the greenhouse gas emissions (are) much lower with pipelines.”

The U of A study, which was first published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, calculated the carbon emissions from the entire lifecycle of a pipeline—materials production, construction, transportation and pumping mechanisms—versus a rail car.

“There needs to be public education in terms of what actually is the greenhouse gas footprint when you talk about rail versus pipeline,” says Kumar.

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