After deadly Quebec explosion, questions about the viability of oil transport by rail get louder

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After a catastrophic oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que. where 13 are confirmed dead and 50 missing, a critical question has emerged.

Isn’t it safer to transport oil by pipelines?

The question is of particular importance to people in British Columbia, where two major proposed oil pipelines have met stiff resistance from environmentalists, First Nations and some communities.

Both pipelines — the $6.5-billion Enbridge line through northern B.C. and Kinder Morgan’s $5.4-billion twinning project to the Lower Mainland — are meant to deliver crude from the Alberta oilsands to new markets in Asia.

If the pipelines are not approved, there is little doubt oil shipments by rail to B.C.’s ports will increase. Alberta oil producers are intent on diversifying from their dependence on the U.S. market. Alberta oilsands producer Nexen has already investigated that possibility using CN through the Port of Prince Rupert in northern B.C.

And companies are already bidding on the right to transport their oil on Kinder Morgan’s existing Trans Mountain line because Alberta producers are now shipping oil via the Burnaby terminal to Asian markets.

The combined capacity of the two proposed oil pipelines of more than 1.1 million barrels a day would take more than 1,500 rail cars a day to transport.

No longer able to get all the conventional oil it needs for its small refinery in Burnaby, Chevron began transporting small amounts of oil from Alberta and Saskatchewan by CN rail to Langley, then trucking it to the refinery. In May, Chevron increased the amount of oil brought in by rail, and the 7,500 barrels of oil now brought in by train and truck account for about 14 per cent of the refinery’s maximum operating capacity.

“Our position is that pipelines represent, we think, the safest most efficient method (of transportation). However, in response to business needs, we’ve had to introduce these others,” Chevron Burnaby refinery spokesman Ray Lord said Monday.

But Lord also said rail is safe and that there have been no incidents since they started using trains more than a year ago.

Historically, it doesn’t appear using rail to transport oil to the former Ioca refinery in Port Moody was a safety issue either.

Rail was used to transport oil to the refinery for decades until the Trans Mountain pipeline was built in the 1950s without any derailments or spills, said Al Sholund, a Port Moody historian and former employee at the Ioca refinery.

There have been major derailments in Western Canada, including on Aug. 3, 2005 when 800,000 litres of bunker oil and wood preservative spilled into Wabamun Lake west of Edmonton. Just days later, a derailment near Squamish spilled 40,000 litres of caustic soda into the Cheakamus River.

There were 49 fatalities from railway incidents in 2012 in Canada, five in B.C., according to the Transportation Safety Board.

However, all but a handful were from crossing or trespassing incidents.

University of B.C. professor David Farrell said there is no question that statistically, it’s safer to transport oil by pipeline than it is by rail.

He said a U.S. study of incidents between 2005-2009 shows road transportation had the highest accident rate, followed by rail and pipelines. Citing the study by the think-tank Manhattan Institute, which supports building pipelines, Farrell noted that the number of incidents on rail were four times as great as on pipelines.

The study found road had 19.95 incidents per billion ton-miles, followed by rail with 2.08 per billion ton-miles, natural gas transmission at 0.89 and oil pipelines at 0.58.

“There is nothing that really moves on (pipelines) other than the stuff in the pipeline. In the case of rail, you have steel wheels, and steel rails, and these are moving, so when you get an incident there’s going to be more damage and the risk of ignition by sparks,” said Farrell, a transportation and logistics expert in UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

However, a Burnaby citizen’s group opposed to Kinder Morgan’s proposed pipeline says it makes little difference whether its pipelines or trains transporting oil.

“It’s like choosing between different poisons,” said Alan Dutton, a member of the Burnaby Residents Opposing Kinder Morgan Expansion.

CP Railway declined to comment after the tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Que.

In an email, CN spokesman Mark Hallman said Tuesday the tragic Quebec accident is a sober reminder of the vital importance of rail safety.

“However, this tragedy notwithstanding, movement of hazardous material by rail not only can be, but is being handled safely in the vast majority of instances,” said Hallman.

According to the Association of American Railroads, of which CN is a member, 99.9977 per cent of hazardous material carloads moved by railroad are accident free.

Pipelines in British Columbia have also had spill incidents, including two recent small spills on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline.

Major past incidents include a 2007 rupture that leaked 1,400 barrels of oil in Burnaby after an excavator punctured the Trans Mountain line.

Both Kinder Morgan and Enbridge also declined an interview on Tuesday, saying their companies’ thoughts were with the community of Lac-Mégantic and those grieving loved ones.

Kinder Morgan noted its safety record of oil spills is well below the industry average.

Enbridge has also touted the industry’s safety record, noting on its Northern Gateway website that pipelines “are the safest, most economical, and most environmentally sensitive method of transporting petroleum on the planet.”

The Canadian Petroleum Association has noted that from 2002 and 2009, the average annual volume released from pipelines was just two litres for every million litres transported. That works out to 99.9998 per cent of the product transported safely.

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