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

FILE – Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs have agreed to sign a memorandum on rights and title with B.C. and Ottawa, but elected chiefs are demanding it be called off over lack of consultation. (Thom Barker photo)
Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs, Lake Babine Nation get provincial funding for land, title rights

Government says it’s a new, flexible model for future agreements between Canada, B.C. and First Nations.

Kieran Christison, manager of Daybreak Farms in Terrace inspects eggs on Oct. 30, 2020. Christison wants to transition to a zero waste, cage-free facility. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Daybreak Farms aiming to achieve zero-waste, cage-free facility

Kieran Christison, manager, presented the farm’s future plans to Terrace city council

Mercedes Trigo, assistant manager, said that Trigo’s Lifestyle Store in Terrace has experienced four broken windows and an attempted break-in recently, leaving her feeling unsupported by bystanders and the police. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
Trigo’s management frustrated by property damage, theft

In a little over a month there have been four broken windows and an attempted break-in at the store

Two RCMP officers have been recognized for their actions in responding to an incident involving a man with a weapon at 4501 Park Ave. on the afternoon of April 27, 2020. RCMP say it was an isolated incident and there is no danger to the general public. (Jake Wray photo)
Terrace RCMP officers recognized for acts of bravery

Two involved in arrest of armed suspect

Rainbow trouts thrashing with life as they’re about to be transferred to the largest lake of their lives, even though it’s pretty small. These rainbows have a blue tinge because they matched the blue of their hatchery pen, but soon they’ll take on the green-browns of their new home at Lookout Lake. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
VIDEO: B.C. lake stocked with hatchery trout to delight of a seniors fishing club

The Cherish Trout Scouts made plans to come back fishing soon

Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops. (Dave Eagles/Kamloops This Week file photo)
RCMP intercept vehicle fleeing with infant taken from Kamloops hospital

The baby was at the hospital receiving life-saving care

Vancouver Police Const. Deepak Sood is under review by the Independent Investigations Office of B.C. after making comments to a harm reduction advocate Sunday, April 11. (Screen grab)
VIDEO: Vancouver officer convicted of uttering threats under watchdog review again

Const. Deepak Sood was recorded Sunday saying ‘I’ll smack you’ and ‘go back to selling drugs’ to a harm reduction advocate

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry prepares a daily update on the coronavirus pandemic, April 21, 2020. (B.C. Government)
B.C.’s COVID-19 infection rate persists, 1,005 new cases Friday

Hospitalization up to 425, six more virus-related deaths

Premier John Horgan receives a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at the pharmacy in James Bay Thrifty’s Foods in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, April 16, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. Premier John Horgan gets AstraZeneca shot, encourages others

27% of residents in B.C. have now been vaccinated against COVID-19

The Nautical Dog Cafe at Skaha marina is getting its patio ready in hopes Mother Nature will provide where provincial restrictions have taken away indoor dining. (Facebook)
‘A lot of instability’: B.C. restaurants in layoff limbo

As COVID-19 cases stay high, restaurants in British Columbia are closed to indoor dining

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Expectations high as Trudeau Liberals get ready to unveil first pandemic budget

The Liberals will look to thread an economic needle with Monday’s budget

Since April 4, 38 flights with COVID-19 cases have departed from Vancouver International Airport, while 23 arrived. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Vancouver the largest source of domestic flights with COVID-19 cases: data

This month alone, 38 flights with COVID-19 cases have departed from Vancouver International Airport, while 23 arrived

John Furlong, Own The Podium board chairman and former CEO of the Vancouver Olympics, addresses a Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday November 25, 2015.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
John Furlong presents 2030 Winter Games vision to Vancouver Board of Trade

Vancouver and Whistler would remain among host sites because of 2010 sport venues still operational

Most Read