Rail cars wait for pickup in Winnipeg, Sunday, March 23, 2014. The fierce debate over cross-border pipelines is putting more Canadian oil and gas on trains destined for the United States — a country experts fear is ill-equipped for the potential consequences. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Rail cars wait for pickup in Winnipeg, Sunday, March 23, 2014. The fierce debate over cross-border pipelines is putting more Canadian oil and gas on trains destined for the United States — a country experts fear is ill-equipped for the potential consequences. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

As debate rages over cross-border pipelines, U.S. analysts brace for more oil by rail

Canada exported more than 190,000 barrels a day in December 2020

The fierce debate over cross-border pipelines is putting more Canadian oil and gas on trains destined for the United States — a country experts fear is ill-equipped for the potential consequences.

It would take an oil-by-rail calamity of a scale comparable to the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster in Quebec before Americans wake up to the dangers, U.S. rail safety analysts say.

“There’s a bullet whizzing past our head,” said Eric de Place, an energy policy expert and director at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank focused on sustainability issues in the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

On average, more than a million barrels of crude oil travel through Washington state each week, most of it from North Dakota but about 13 per cent from Alberta and Saskatchewan, according to the state’s Department of Ecology.

The risks were punctuated late last year when seven tanker cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire just outside Bellingham, Wash., a city of nearly 90,000 people not far from the Canada-U.S. border.

“The only thing I can imagine is that there will have to be a significant loss of life before we get the regulatory attention that the industry deserves, in my opinion, and that’s a tragedy that’s just waiting to unfold,” de Place said.

“We’re talking about 300-foot tall fireballs — this is cinematic, when accidents happen. I mean, it looks like a James Cameron movie.”

It’s a real-life image Canadians know all too well.

In July 2013, an oil-laden train derailed and exploded in the heart of Lac-Mégantic in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec, killing 47 and levelling half of downtown — the deadliest non-passenger train accident in Canadian history.

The tragedy put a laser-sharp focus on oil-by-rail in Canada, resulting in a number of regulatory changes, including an end to single-person train crews and the phaseout of DOT-111 or TC-111 tanker cars for crude oil.

In the U.S., however, new rules that took effect in 2016 didn’t explicitly prohibit the use of DOT-111s for flammable cargo, said Fred Millar, an independent rail industry analyst and safety expert in Alexandria, Va.

A Bureau of Transportation report submitted to Congress in September found that while DOT-111s stopped carrying crude oil in 2018, the cars still carry some flammable liquids such as ethanol, and won’t be completely gone until 2029.

In 2019, the report said, 73 per cent of the tank car fleet carrying crude oil in the U.S. comprised DOT-117 cars — a heavier, “jacketed” tanker with more robust valves and reinforced shields at either end.

“More than 99.99 per cent of all haz-mat moved by rail reaches its destination without a release caused by an accident,” Jessica Kahanek of the Association of American Railroads said in a statement.

“Railroads also long advocated for tougher tank car standards and fully endorsed rules that are now in place requiring these cars have higher grade steel, improved thermal protection, thicker shells, and enhanced valves.”

Developed after Lac-Mégantic, DOT-117s are only “marginally safer” than their predecessors, said Millar, noting that Congress has consistently refused to impose limits on train length or speed, or require that dangerous cargo be rerouted away from population centres.

“The thing about rail car safety is there’s a trade-off between the weight of the car and how much product you can carry — there’s a conflict between safety and profit,” he said.

“If you put on more steel to protect from puncture, that means you have to put in less product.”

Oil and gas exports from Canada depend heavily on commodity prices; crude shipments by rail plunged last summer as the price of oil collapsed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, well off the dramatic peaks they posted at the beginning of the year.

But those exports are ticking back up: Canada exported more than 190,000 barrels a day in December 2020, twice the level posted just four months earlier, according to data from the federal energy regulator.

Environmentalists have long opposed pipeline projects like TC Energy’s Keystone XL and Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 and Line 5 for fear of an expansion of Alberta’s oilsands operations as well as further North American dependence on fossil fuels.

President Joe Biden cancelled the Keystone XL expansion on his first day in office, while Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to shut down Line 5, which links Wisconsin and Sarnia, Ont., via the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan has vowed to defend Line 5, which he called a vital source of energy and jobs in Michigan and Ohio, as well as Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.

That energy is going to get to market by any means available, all of them less reliable “and with regard to oil by rail … far less safe” than pipelines, O’Regan told a House of Commons committee Thursday.

“Just so that we all understand what’s at stake … that energy, those molecules, are going to have to be transported either by rail, by truck, or by marine transportation,” O’Regan said.

“They will have to get sourced, because people will not be kept cold — that’s for sure.”

Millar said the Trump administration tried to make it easier to ship energy by rail in the U.S., including authorizing the transport of liquefied natural gas throughout the country and trying to block efforts to require two-person train crews.

An appeals court in Nebraska last month rejected the Trump-era decision to abandon the two-person rule, which the Obama administration introduced in 2016 in response, in part, to Lac-Mégantic.

“We’ve passed through a very dangerous phase,” Millar said.

“The rail industry overall — but hazardous-materials transportation specifically — is more dangerous than it was before.”

James McCarten, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A police car at the scene of a child’s death Friday, April 9, at the Falcon Nest Motel in Duncan. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
RCMP investigating child’s death at Duncan’s Falcon Nest Motel

First responders attended to a call about an unresponsive child at the… Continue reading

Brent Clancy, president of the Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce, takes down the signs at the Lake Cowichan Visitor Centre, which closed its doors for good on Jan. 31. Mayor Bob Day says the possible creation of a Town tourism committee is not a response to the closure. (Robert Barron/Citizen)
Town of Lake Cowichan looking to form tourism and housing committees

Decision not related to the Lake Cowichan Visitor Information Centre closure

“Representing the school district, legion, and Kaatza Station Museum left to right are Georgie Clark of the museum, Wilma Rowbottom of School District #66 and Ernie Spencer, representing the Legion. The museum and Legion, along with the Village will each take a piece of the old wood shop.” (The Lake News)
Lake Flashback: Soapboxes, woodshop split, taxes down

Remember these stories from Lake Cowichan?

Tim Schewe
Drivesmart column: Rules around bicycle lanes

The lane is often painted green to distinguish it from lanes intended for motor vehicles.

Robert’s column
Robert Barron column: New hospital shouldn’t charge for parking

Paying a parking meter is the last thing people visiting a hospital should have to worry about.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations near Vancouver Island

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod, seen here on April 9, 2021 with four-year-old sister Elena and mom Vanessa, was born with limb differences. The family, including husband/dad Sean McLeod, is looking for a family puppy that also has a limb difference. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. family looking for puppy with limb difference, just like 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy McLeod born as bilateral amputee, now her family wants to find ‘companion’ puppy for her

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Most Read