Half a dozen measures could make an expected increase in shipments of crude oil by rail through Canada less dangerous, and therefore a less effective threat to induce Canadian communities to accept pipelines as a lesser-of-evils risk, DeSmog Canada writes.
With oil prices inching back up, several tar sands/oil sands operators have green-lit production increases for the first time since prices collapsed in 2014. With no new pipeline capacity expected any time soon to deliver that additional crude to U.S. or other markets, industry observers predict the number of oil trains rumbling over the rails will rise.
Communities along the rail lines involved understandably fear becoming another Lac-Mégantic, QC, where 47 citizens and most of the downtown were incinerated in 2013 when an overweight, poorly maintained oil train slipped its brakes, rolled downhill, left the rails, and exploded.
So great is the horror at that prospect that oil and pipeline companies have been accused of using it as a cudgel to coerce support for pipelines as an allegedly more secure way to move crude oil.
But in fact, “transporting oil by rail doesn’t have to be nearly as dangerous as it currently is,” DeSmog asserts.
“There are many rules and regulations that could be implemented by the federal government to help avoid another disaster like what happened in Lac-Mégantic,” the news outlet writes. “These solutions could massively increase the safety of oil-by-rail.”
To begin with, “rail is the only industrial sector that’s effectively exempt from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act,” DeSmog notes. While new rail lines over certain distances may require an assessment, once they’re in place railways are largely free to run what they like over them without further review.
Legislation introduced by NDP MP Linda Duncan (Edmonton-Strathcona) would “amend the Railway Safety Act to restrict the shipment of dangerous goods to certain volumes unless the transport minister authorizes an exemption.” A second amendment, to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, would mandate an assessment if the shipment posed a “potentially significant risk to the environment, human life, or public health.”
Ecojustice has petitioned Ottawa to compel assessments on all oil-by-rail terminals as well.
Three years after Lac Mégantic, Ottawa accelerated the phaseout of the single-walled DOT-111 tanker cars that failed and exploded in that disaster. Currently, railways must employ an upgraded version of the same car—the CPC-1232—to move crude oil. A newer and safer car, the DOT-117, accounts for some 14% of oil-by-rail shipments. But 86% still travels in modified older cars that “only represent a slight improvement, and have already been involved in multiple explosive derailments.”
The newer DOT-117 cars will become mandatory for all oil-by-rail trains by 2025. “But that’s many years away,” DeSmog points out.
There are also ways to treat the bitumen diluted with petroleum solvent that is typically shipped from the tar sands/oil sands before it gets on the train, to make it less explosive. One process removes natural gas liquids before the diluted bitumen is put in the tank car. Another turns raw, undiluted bitumen into pellets that don’t explode and can be swept up if they spill (the Calgary researchers behind the idea claim the pellets can also be made buoyant, so they won’t sink if spilled in the ocean.)
But either might add some cost to what is already a low-margin enterprise, and “oil companies have resisted strenuously doing anything to stabilize oil before it goes into the tank cars,” said Bruce Campbell, former executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, who is writing a book on the Lac-Mégantic disaster.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada explicitly called out Transport Canada’s failure of oversight and enforcement as contributors to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, and urged the department to do better. But employees charge that little has changed “in the number or quality of inspectors, [or] resources dedicated to the task.”
According to Campbell, the actual number of rail safety and dangerous goods inspectors has not risen since 2004 to keep up with the increase in oil-by-rail shipments. “It’s more and more just a paper exercise,” he said.
Meanwhile, Transport Canada releases little information about what’s riding the rails to the Canadian public. Nor does it offer the public much opportunity to provide feedback. “We really need to have more input on a regular basis,” Patricia Lai, co-founder of Safe Rail Communities, told DeSmog.
And those suggestions don’t exhaust the possibilities for making oil trains less likely to turn into “bomb trains”, the outlet concludes.
“The government could require companies to reroute tracks to avoid heavily populated areas, implement a new fatigue management framework, order a strategic environmental assessment of all oil-by-rail shipments, or implement advanced rail safety technologies.”
(Or, we could add, it might take steps to just leave more of that oil in the ground.)