picture by greenpeace canda
On July 6 2013, the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec suffered an unspeakable tragedy when a goods train carrying crude oil derailed creating a fire that killed dozens of residents, spilled 100,000 liters of oil into the Chaudière River, decimated the downtown area and left the city with a $4 million cleanup bill. Our thoughts are with the families of those who were lost in this cataclysmic event. We must now turn our attention to the transportation of crude oil and ways in which to mitigate these kinds of events in the future.
Ultimately, of course, abandoning the use of fossil fuels in favor of renewable alternatives is the way forward, but in the interim we must find modes of transportation that are safe for both people and the environment. What options do we have? Does this bolster the argument for proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline or should we augment the safety of existing railway structures?
It’s no surprise that railway resources are stretched thin; transportation of crude oil increased from 500 carloads in 2009 to 14,000 already this year. Following the events at Lac-Mégantic federal officials have compiled a list of emergency directives aimed at preventing similar rail disasters which will last until December. It is hoped that, by this time, studies into the cause of the disaster will have been completed and that Ottawa can then pass the recommendations of these studies into law. The directive can be extended if the laws have not been passed by December. From The Star:
“Among Transport Canada’s other recommendations, rail companies must:
- Ensure that all unattended locomotives on a main track and sidings are protected from unauthorized entry into the cab.
- Ensure the directional controls, commonly known as reversers, are removed from any unattended locomotives to prevent them from moving forward or backward.
- Ensure that hand brakes and automatic brakes are properly applied to trains left unattended.”
These directives focus on the operation protocols rather than the classification of crude oil and a non-dangerous substance which allows it to be transported through towns and cities. It is also alarming to note that the Canadian railway uses train carriages that the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board rejected because of “high incidence of tank failures during accidents”. Even the Canadian Transportation Safety Board found that the trains were prone “to release product at derailment and impact.” More disturbing still is that the federal government’s safety officials deemed 80% of the Canadian rail tanker fleet unsafe for carrying crude oil; a finding that hasn’t translated into any practicable improvements in the field.
Proponents of the TransCanada Keystone XL and the Enbridge Line 9B pipeline are using the incident to champion their alternate method of transporting crude oil. An April 2012 study by the International Energy Agency showed that while trains produce more oil spills than pipelines, the pipelines spill more oil overall. In fact, they spill about three times as much oil as trains. That means that between 2006 and 2012, 28 million liters of pipeline oil were spilled in Alberta alone.
Of course, the best answer to the crude oil transportation question is an investment in renewable energy sources, but until we finally break our addiction to fossil fuels, we will have to put pressure on oil companies to dig into those deep, deep pockets of theirs to find safer ways to transport their products to end users.
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