In recent months, there’s been a re-emergence of one of the oil industry’s most adored tropes: that without new pipelines, companies will ship oil by rail and threaten entire communities with derailments, explosions and spills.
The jury’s still very much out on whether shipments will actually increase by much more than what we’ve seen in the past. Regardless, there’s one thing that strangely never gets mentioned by proponents of the argument.
Transporting oil by rail doesn’t have to be nearly as dangerous as it currently is.
In fact, there are many rules and regulations that could be implemented by the federal government to help avoid another disaster like what happened in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, or Gogama, Ontario.
“We live within metres of the transcontinental CP line,” Patricia Lai, co-founder of Safe Rail Communities, told DeSmog Canada. “This is very real for us on a daily basis, and we know this exists for communities across the country. It’s fantastic to say that you’re committed, but we really need some action to happen more quickly.”
Here are just a few things the federal government can do to dramatically improve oil-by-rail safety.
Require Proper Assessments for Oil-By-Rail Projects
As MP Linda Duncan put it in an interview with DeSmog Canada, rail is the only industrial sector that’s effectively exempt from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
To be sure, there are provisions in the legislation related to rail. But the way that environmental assessments work is that a “physical activity” such as building a new pipeline or dam of a certain length or capacity will trigger an assessment.
An assessment will get triggered if a new railway of 32 kilometres or more is built. Same with a rail yard with “seven or more yard tracks or a total track length of 20 km or more.” But the trigger doesn’t have anything to do with what’s actually being shipped on existing CP or CN railways.
“It doesn’t matter if one of the two major rail lines increases by a thousand-fold the transport of dangerous goods,” said Duncan, who introduced a private member’s bill in 2016 to improve oil-by-rail safety.
“They can transport whatever they want, at any time, in an overloaded many-mile-long train and continue not to maintain their tracks or trains properly.”
Duncan’s bill would require two related changes.
The first would amend the Railway Safety Act to restrict the shipment of dangerous goods to certain volumes unless the transport minister authorizes an exemption. Secondly, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act would require the environment minister to trigger an assessment if the activity poses a “potentially significant risk to the environment, human life or public health.”
“What I’m proposing is the tip of the iceberg,” said Duncan, who previously served as opposition transport critic.
While Transport Minister Marc Garneau has repeatedly stated that rail safety is a top priority for him and the federal government, he hasn’t yet voiced support for the bill.
Charles Hatt, staff lawyer at Ecojustice, said he’s seen something similar in his communications with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna on the subject. Ecojustice has requested the federal government to order assessments on all oil-by-rail terminals regardless of size.
“We know the rather appalling gap in the legislation for these kind of activities was pointed out directly to the minister and we suggested actions she could take, and she chose not to,” Hatt told DeSmog Canada. “There’s no doubt what this government thinks about this issue.”
Accelerate Phase-Out of Older Train Models
In July 2016, the federal government announced the accelerated phase-out of the DOT-111 railcar for transporting oil.
That was the same model of railcar used in the Lac-Mégantic disaster, long criticized for being susceptible to puncture and explosions due to insufficiently thick walls and lack of full heat shield. Now, crude oil is transported by models such as the CPC-1232 (a modified version of the DOT-111) and the new DOT-117, which will replace all models by 2025.
But that’s many years away.
According to Bruce Campbell, former executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and author of an upcoming book on the Lac-Mégantic disaster, about 86 per cent of tank cars that transport crude oil are the modified versions of the DOT-111. Those only represent a slight improvement and have already been involved in multiple explosive derailments.
“It’s great that tank cars will have improved by 2025,” Lai, from Safe Rail Communities, said. “But we don’t even know for sure if those tank cars are strong enough.”
Reduce Volatility of Oil Before Shipment
An associated issue is that companies could easily reduce the volatility of oil by a process called “stabilizing,” which sees the flammable natural gas liquids removed from the product.
But that would cost money, around $2 per barrel according to North Dakota regulators.
“Oil companies have resisted strenuously doing anything to stabilize oil before it goes into the tank cars, removing its most volatile components,” Campbell said in an interview with DeSmog Canada.
“There’s a way to transport bitumen in its raw form, which is not volatile. But that requires special heated cars.”
Raw bitumen, also referred to as “neatbit,” would greatly reduce the amount of diluent used in shipping bitumen and in turn decrease the risk levels of oil-by-rail. The process would require a significant amount of capital investment, and hasn’t been explored much by industry.
End Self-Regulation, Increase Government Enforcement
In 2001, the government introduced a new approach to regulating rail, called “safety management systems.” Essentially, it means that rail companies craft and implement safety protocols and the federal government audits them.
But critics don’t think it’s nearly sufficient.
“It’s self regulation if it’s the companies doing it,” Campbell said.“The whole idea was that it was supposed to be an additional layer to conventional direct oversight. Of course, it isn’t, because they didn’t give Transport Canada the resources or the money.”
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada specifically identified a lack of safety culture, oversight and enforcement by Transport Canada as contributing factors for Lac-Mégantic, recommending that the department must make sure “not just that [safety management systems] exist, but that they are working and that they are effective.”
Yet in a December 2016 speech at a conference about Lac-Mégantic, Union of Canadian Transportation Employees president Christine Collins said that there still hadn’t been a significant change in the number or quality of inspectors, resources dedicated to the task, or any indication that newly announced federal funding for rail safety would actually improve safety standards.
Campbell added the actual number of rail safety inspectors and dangerous goods inspectors hasn’t increased since at least 2004, despite oil-by-rail shipments skyrocketing in volume.
“On-site unannounced inspections have just shrunk and it’s more and more just a paper exercise,” he said.
Listen to the Public
Then there’s the challenge of actually being able to influence how things are done given that almost all the major decisions made behind closed doors.
“It’s an internal conversation between the railway companies and the ministry,” Campbell said. “There’s no public consultation process. Nominally, they consult with the unions but they’re under no obligation.”
A related impediment to understanding the issues is that there’s very little information out there on the actual amount of oil being transported in Canada. While the National Energy Board reports the monthly volume of exports by rail to the U.S., there’s no similar numbers for internal shipments.
In addition, risk assessments and evaluations conducted by the companies are protected by commercial confidentiality, meaning that the public doesn’t have access to them. Combine that with lack of consultation, and it’s obvious there are improvements to be made when it comes to transparency and consultation.
“We really need to have more input on a regular basis,” Lai said.
“There has to be a better mechanism for moving things forward rather than saying ‘come and share with us what your concerns are and we’ll take it away.’ I think there really has to be some kind of working group or network struck that really does include stakeholders like the public who are really affected by this kind of thing.”
More Solutions At Hand
These solutions could massively increase the safety of oil-by-rail and even then, there are many more waiting to be implemented.
The government could require companies to reroute tracks to avoid heavily populated areas, or implement a new fatigue management framework, or order a strategic environmental assessment of all oil-by-rail shipments, or implement advanced rail safety technologies.
And, according to Duncan, the idea of dangerous oil-by-rail should no longer be used as an argument to push for pipeline projects.
“I get really tired of oil companies arguing they should be able to build pipelines because rail is more dangerous,” Duncan said. “That’s a really specious argument. We need to be making sure that we’re properly reviewing all means of transport of dangerous materials.”
Image: A derailed oil train burns near Gogama, Ontario in 2015. Photo: Transportation Safety Board via Flickr