A research scientist from the United States is giving his take on oil transportation after a train carrying petroleum derailed in southeast Saskatchewan last week.

A Canadian Pacific Railway locomotive carrying two cars of petroleum went off the tracks near Macoun, Sask. last Thursday.

James Conca is an energy expert who is well versed in the oil transportation debate.

"It kind of depends on what you care about," said Conca, a trustee for the Herbert M. Parker Foundation at Washington State University. "Do you care about the environment, do you care about humans, human health and life, or do you care about money, the amount of oil spilled, and that kind of thing."

"If you're opposing pipelines, then you're forcing oil to go by some other route. You're forcing it to go by truck or by boat or by rail. And so if those things cause more destruction of things that you care about, then you're really making the problem worse," he continued. "You may hate pipelines, but pipelines are actually better in many ways than rail and boat."

Conca said the debate boils down to one generally accepted concept.

"Pipeline is definitely worse than rail for environmental impact, but rail is worse than pipeline for human deaths and property destruction," he said.

Conca added that one of the strongest arguments in favour of pipelines is the cost.

"Pipeline is so much more cost effective it's not even funny," he said. "That's why in Canada, 97 per cent of natural gas and petroleum are transported by pipeline."

"For the U.S., the difference in cost of shipping crude via Keystone (Pipeline) versus rail is about 50 billion dollars a year, so that kind of totally eclipses any other issue surrounding money. People talk about jobs...jobs are trivial compared to the actual value of the oil itself."

James ConcaJames Conca says there are several factors at play when debating pipelines and other forms of oil transportation. (Photo supplied by James Conca)

Opponents of pipelines often point to the environmental impacts, which usually affect water habitats more than anything else, Conca explained.

"Most of the spills in rail are not into water, rivers or lakes or that kind of thing," he said. "Whereas a pipeline is crossing rivers all the time, and of course boats are on water. Spilling on land, even though it's horrible, it's not as bad as spilling into water. Because that really affects a huge amount of habitat, drinking water issues, aquatic things."

Efficiency is also a strong argument for pipelines, Conca said.

"Because it carries so much. A pipeline is just continuously flowing, huge amounts. Whereas rail and truck, you have to fill it and move it. Much more efficient and much less costly."

Oil transportation is also strongly linked to refineries, Conca said.

"There's different types of crude, and they require different refining processes. When you build a refinery, you build it specifically to refine a certain type of crude. You can't refine another one in that refinery," he said. "Most of the refineries in North America are actually in the southern United States, and so you need pipelines to get the Canadian oil there, or to get Venezuelan oil up, whatever it is, to the correct refinery or it's worthless."

"And we don't build refineries, because refineries are very costly and they're not very profitable, even though they're required. We haven't built a new refinery in decades. We upgraded one like 10 years ago," Conca continued. "If you have to truck things all the way to the southern United States from Canada, or rail, versus pipeline, it's going to be much more costly because you have to go a great distance and you have to do it...you're just stuck."

Looking towards the future, Conca said he doesn't see much changing in the next five to 10 years.

"Almost the same...I hate to say that," he said. "The only way to get rid of oil use or to decrease it significantly is to go to fully electric vehicles, but then you need lithium and a lot more electricity."

"There's a lot of things going on that are going to disrupt our hopeful change away from fossil fuels, away from petroleum. But it's not going to happen any time soon."