National Newswatch
National Opinion Centre

The National Energy Board estimated recently that if no new pipelines were built, oil by rail would increase tenfold in coming decades.

Prime Minister Trudeau justified, in part, his recent decision to approve Kinder Morgan and Enbridge Line 3, on the grounds that pipelines were safer than rail.

With or without these new pipelines, most experts agree that transportation of oil by rail will increase steadily over the next decade to handle increased oil sands production. Current rail capacity in Canada is about 1 million barrels per day.

Given the fundamental flaws in the rail transportation system, which have not yet been fixed, rail remains the greater danger to human life 3 1/2 years after the  Lac-Mégantic disaster. It also clear that the volume of pipeline spills overall, and hence their environmental contamination, is three times larger than rail spills.

Let me outline ten measures that would make the rail system safer for transporting oil; that would demonstrate that the lessons of Lac-Mégantic are being learned; and may give some comfort to the community that paid such a terrible price.


  1. Tank cars: Although there have been improvements in tank car design (TC-117), the bulk of the tank cars currently transporting oil—the CPC-1232 model, which has been called by the US Transportation Safety Board only a “slight improvement” over the legacy DOT-111s—will continue on the tracks until fully replaced in 2025. These unsafe cars continue to puncture on derailment and their oil explode and burn, recently in Mosier Oregon, narrowly averting loss of life. The Canadian government should advance the current phase-out period of these tank cars.


  1. Bakken shale: Oil companies have strenuously resisted removing the volatile components of Bakken shale oil before loading. There has been increasing pressure on them to do so by the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)). However, the incoming Trump Administration intends to undertake a massive deregulation: the future is not bright. The Canadian government should simply prohibit the transportation of non-stabilized Bakken oil on Canadian territory.


  1. Bitumen: Bitumen is currently transported mostly in the form of dilbit, i.e. raw bitumen diluted with a volatile diluent to make it flow. The two derailments in Gogama Ontario in February and March 2015 involved dilbit—contained in CPC-1232 tank cars— which exploded and burned. However, bitumen could be transported as neatbit: bitumen with virtually all of its volatile components removed. This is already being done in small amounts in heated tank cars. The capacity exists to transport a lot more bitumen this way, and more cars should be built. The government should put in place phase-out timetable for the transportation of bitumen in dilbit form.


  1. Safety Management Systems: The SMS rail regulatory regime was introduced 15 years ago ostensibly as an additional safety layer. However, in absence of traditional oversight (on-site unannounced inspections), SMS amounts to company self-regulation. It has become a substitute instead of an additional layer of protection. Especially since the government seems unwilling to devote sufficient resources to real oversight, SMS should be suspended. You can’t do both. We’ve seen the consequences.


  1. Track deterioration issues: Longer, heavier oil trains are having a huge impact on track quality. This has been a cause of many derailments, including numerous disasters since Lac-Mégantic. It needs to be a major focus of  improving  rail safety.


  1. Worker fatigue: Companies have been resisting for years to properly address worker fatigue. It likely contributed to the Lac-Mégantic disaster. It’s on the 2016 TSB Watch list.


  1. Federal regulatory policy: The Lac-Megantic disaster showed unequivocally that economy/energy superpower priorities took precedence over the safety-first (precautionary) regulatory principle. Regulatory policy needs to be rebalanced and public safety criteria restored to their rightful place. The Conservative regulatory policy included a mechanism called a one-for-one rule, which calls for the removal of one regulation for each proposed new or amended regulation. This must be scrapped.


  1. 8. Empowerment of communities to have a say about the potential dangers of oil being transported through their cities and towns: For example, the Belledune, NB rail loading terminal, will increase rail traffic along its route by 86,000 barrels per day. The town of Rimouski, which is along its route, asked the federal environment minister to undertake an environmental assessment. It was turned down.


  1. Regulatory capture: underlies many of the problems with the rail regulatory regime. The extraordinary increase in the power of corporations to shape and drive the regulatory process to benefit its own private interest at the expense of the public good, undermines a central function of government: to regulate in the public interest. The power relationship between the industry and the regulator needs to be rebalanced. This could start by providing the regulator with adequate resources, expertise and independence; increasing the transparency of industry-regulator relations; and empowering third parties—municipalities, citizens groups—to engage in the regulatory process.


  1. Judicial inquiry: We can’t move forward until we fully understand its causes: What went on inside Transport Canada, its relationship with the company MMA, with the rail industry in general, and their connection to the regulatory failures that culminated in this tragedy. The August 2014 Transportation Safety Board report should not be the last word. There are many unanswered questions. Other major disasters have had inquiries? Why not this one? Combining loss of life, physical destruction and environmental contamination, Lac-Mégantic is without precedent in modern Canadian history.


Whether we like it or not, all modes of transportation will continue to be used for shipping oil —rail and pipelines, and marine.  People should not have to choose between dangerous transportation options.  The number one priority for all modes should be to ensure protection of public health and safety, and the environment.  At the same time all means possible should be devoted to reducing our dependence on oil, and transitioning to a low carbon economy.

Bruce Campbell, former executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, is a visiting fellow at the University of Ottawa faculty of law. “Have the Lessons of the Lac-Mégantic Disaster Been Learned,” is the title of a conference taking place December 8, 2016 at the University  of  Ottawa.

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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