PARLEYS CANYON — The crash of a tanker truck hauling crude oil from the Uinta Basin to the Wasatch Front underscores the risk of environmental contamination that accompanies the 250 trucks that make that round trip every day.
A proposed pipeline would take that same oil — an estimated 2.5 million gallons — and deliver it daily to Salt Lake area refineries for processing.
The bulk of Utah crude oil is ferried by truck, but nationally, pipelines convey 70 percent of the crude oil and petroleum products and just 4 percent of that is transported via truck.
"Statistically speaking nationwide, pipelines are the safest, most efficient way to transport petroleum products," said Lee Peacock, president of the Utah Petroleum Association. "That is not to say that trucking is unsafe. Considering the volume of petroleum products transported around the state every day, we have a very good track record."
Wednesday morning's crash on I-80 near Lambs Canyon spilled an estimated 4,500 gallons of oil. A typical tanker can carry 8,400 gallons.
Initial concerns the oil seeped into Parleys Creek were abated with booms placed in the stream bed to contain the waxy crude.
Jeff Niermeyer, director of Salt Lake City's Department of Public Utilities, said about 100 feet of active stream was touched by oil, but a siphon dam was being constructed to prevent any further migration of the thick, waxy crude into the water supply.
Tesoro, which is proposing the Uinta Express Pipeline, said the 135-mile, 12-inch common carrier line would take those 250 trucks off the roadway and allow the 60,000 barrels of oil to drop over the mountains into the Wasatch Front.
Refinery officials declined to comment on the pipeline, but an informational packet on the project promotes the line as a "safe and efficient way" to transport the waxy crude.
With Salt Lake City's history of oil spills at Red Butte due to pipeline ruptures — in which the riparian waterway was despoiled and wiped clean of any aquatic organisms — the tanker crash raises the question of what transport method is best.
An August analysis by OilPrice.com shows that the answer depends on how "best" is defined. The report points to trucking accidents as the most common cause of injury or death, despite horrific headline grabbing accidents like the Quebec train derailment that killed 28 people.
The American Petroleum Institute said that in 2012, more than 474 billion gallons of crude oil and petroleum products were carried by pipeline and claims that just 0.0005 percent of that haul was spilled.
All manner of pipelines conveying natural gas or crude oil and other hazardous materials caused 101 deaths from 1992 to 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline Safety Administration.
Beyond human lives and property damage, the environmental costs of oil spills, train derailments or pipeline ruptures can last for years.
The Parleys Canyon crash happened the same day several train cars derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia, along the James River, leading to a fire and an evacuation.
In Utah's accident, minor by comparison, one semi hit the back trailer of the semitrailer in front of it, causing it to roll, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.
One semitrailer was in pieces after the wreck, and black oil from the tanker cascaded across the right lanes of the freeway and down an embankment. It is unknown how much oil was leaked, but both drivers received only minor injuries.
Traffic was a mess, but the environmental impact at this point appears minimal.
The crash, derailments and ruptures of an aging pipeline infrastructure are all part of the challenge of getting crude oil safely to refineries.
"We live in an environment where we rely on oil," Niermeyer said, "and as a result of that, we end up having to deal with these spills."
Salt Lake City, still stinging from the pair of Red Butte pipeline spills in 2010, weighed in against the Uinta Express Pipeline, concerned about its incompatibility with the mountain watershed.
Niermeyer conceded the tanker trucks — with the air pollution they cause and potential spills — aren't ideal either.
"Now is maybe the time to look at refining it somewhere else."
But with horizontal drilling technology unleashing a flood of oil production across the United States and no new refineries built in nearly 40 years, Wasatch Front refineries are only looking to expand to handle the increased refining demand.
According to the Congressional Research Service, the volume of crude oil carried by rail increased by 423 percent between 2011 and 2012, while the volume of crude oil transported by truck rose 38 percent during that same year. The United States now meets 66 percent of its own crude oil demand from production in North America.
Contributing: Whitney Evans
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