rail pipeline oil transport A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photos © James & Gilles Paire \ Fotolia.com

Anyone familiar with the pipeline debate in Canadian politics shouldn’t be surprised at the widespread public opposition to Enbridge’s proposed Line 9 project. As Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and now Line 9 struggle to gain acceptance and trust in Canada, oil sands producers are quickly turning to rail as an alternative. Like pipelines, shipping oil by rail has inherent risks and requires stringent government regulation and oversight. Regardless of which mitigating measures are taken it is very likely that the risk to the environment will only increase with continued growth in the oil sands. The environment is becoming a critical factor in policy making; for example President Obama has made clear he will only approve Keystone XL if it does not contribute to national CO2 emissions.

As pipeline projects have become ensnared in debate, the major rail companies have positioned themselves to take advantage of transport opportunities and investment in rail has dramatically increased. Existing pipelines are at capacity and in order to relieve the bottleneck several new projects are set to potentially quadruple the amount of oil sands crude shipped by rail. A senior Canadian National Railway official remarked “in my 26 years in the rail business I have never seen this much massive investment in CN lines by our customers to get their products onto our railways.” CN expects to more than double 2012’s 30,000 carloads of raw bitumen and crude by year’s end.

Author Nathan Lemphers summarizes the escalating public relations battle between pipeline and railway advocates. Each side trades statistics proclaiming the other as being too risky and environmentally damaging. This battle often moves to the realm of public opinion and both rail and pipelines suffered headline-grabbing spills and accidents in 2013. Author Lisa Hymas writes that while spills by rail tend to be smaller in volume, they have a higher probability of occurring compared to pipelines. Volumes are not always small; in a 2005 derailment CN spilled over 700,000 litres of oil and chemicals into an Alberta lake. Environmental groups are taking notice; a Greenpeace spokesperson commented that rail is likely to face the same kind of scrutiny that pipelines have come under.

The proposal to reverse flow on Enbridge’s Line 9 carries significant environmental and socio-economic risk and has been covered extensively. For example, the Toronto Star reported that the pipeline crosses all of Toronto’s major rivers and a spill would impact the city’s drinking water supply, raising concerns with the local conservation authority and city staff. The pipeline route runs across the top of the city north of Highway 401.

The tragedy in Lac Mégantic has increased public awareness of how oilsands crude is being shipped by rail. Not unlike Line 9, railway lines snake through communities and carloads of dangerous goods pass by residential areas every day. Line 9 also passes through Mississauga, which saw one of the largest peace time evacuations in North American history during a train derailment in 1979. As a result of the disaster various inquiries were established, including the Toronto Area Rail Transportation of Dangerous Goods Task Force, although until Lac Mégantic the risk was largely forgotten. In the wake of Lac Mégantic municipalities will be taking a closer look at rail infrastructure in their communities. Durham Region ranked train derailments ahead of pipeline failure by level of concern for potential hazards in a 2002 Hazard Analysis and Risk Assessment report.

So what are concerned citizens supposed to do? Are we forced to choose between the lesser of two evils and move ahead with Line 9? A 2013 report by Deloitte concluded that “the economics and the safety record of rail compared to pipelines makes rail a limited and short-term solution at best… To maximize [the oilsands] potential, we are simply going to need more pipelines.” The Harper Government claims to have improved pipeline safety in its Economic Action Plan propaganda. Is this enough? The reality is that there are no easy solutions. Until our love affair with the oil sands ends, Canadians will have to live with the risks of crude transported by both railways and pipelines. 

Dan is an environmental professional currently living in Toronto. Dan has previously published in Municipal World and Environmental Science and Engineering. He specializes in energy, transportation, and climate change policy, corporate sustainability, and environmental planning and assessments. He recently completed a Masters of Environmental Applied Science and Management at Ryerson University and has a Bachelors' degree in Environment and Business from the University of Waterloo. 

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