WASHINGTON – The deadly explosion of a derailed train carrying crude oil in the remote town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., likely will spark fresh arguments in the rancorous debate over the safety of the giant Keystone XL pipeline.
“TransCanada (owner of Keystone XL) and the other pipeline proponents are going to try to use this (accident) to boost their case but it’s a real double-edged sword for them,” Keith Steward, the climate and energy coordinator at Greenpeace in Toronto, said. “Pipelines and rail both have safety issues and both can be a hell of a lot safer than they are today.”
The recent boom in oil production in both Canada and the United states has resulted in an enormous increase in crude oil shipments by rail as train companies try to fill a void caused by the slow pace of pipeline construction. Railroads claim their services are more flexible, safer and in some cases cheaper than pipelines.
Rail shipments have increased enormously since 2008 when 9,500 carloads were shipped, according to the American Association of Railways, which monitors both Canadian and U.S. rail traffic. Last year, crude-oil shipments topped 230,000 carloads and that figure is expected to jump again this year with first quarter shipments already at 97,000.
Large pipeline spills of oilsands bitumen in Arkansas and Michigan have fuelled opposition to the Keystone. But train accidents have endangered lives and contaminated the environment in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and now Quebec, intensifying the debate.
Each side claims a better safety record. TransCanada says rail transportation is 10 times more accident prone than pipelines and creates three times more climate change pollution. The company refused to comment on the possible impact of the Quebec derailment on the Keystone XL debate, other than to express sorrow for the community, adding that it awaits a “full and thorough investigation.” The statement noted that it doesn’t ship oil by rail.
The Association of American Railroads, which tracks both Canadian and U.S. shipments, claims exactly the opposite: rail is 10 times safer. It says last year the percentage of oil spilled by pipelines was 10 times that of railroads.
The AAR says that over the last 10 years, rail had 35 incidents where the spill was more than five gallons while pipelines had 1,784. In total, pipelines spilled 474,441 barrels of crude compared with 2,268 barrels from 2002 to 2012 from rail cars.
Brigham McCown, a hazardous material transportation expert and former administrator of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told Postmedia News that he considers both types of transport safe but in the end “rail cannot come close to matching the safety record of pipelines.”
He said U.S. federal government statistics show that pipelines are 16 times safer than rail and 189 times safer than commercial motor vehicles in shipping crude oil comparing freight tons shipped. On a per kilometre basis, pipelines are 451 times safer, he said.
He noted that the derailed train that exploded in Lac-Mégantic was carrying heavy crude from the Bakken fields is North Dakota to refineries in New Brunswick, which indicates the high degree of North American energy integration. The Bakken is a new shale oil field that Keystone XL would help service by transporting its oil to Texas refineries.
“This is a tragic accident and I don’t recollect anything like it in a long period of time,” he said. “This is something that is very significant and very tragic.”
“All modes of transport are very safe,” he continued. “You are starting to get into a situation where you are splitting pretty fine decimal points.”
He noted that last year pipelines transported 66 per cent of the 13.5 billion barrels of crude and refined products shipped in the United States. Of that 99.99999 per cent was shipped safely.
Steward said the safety argument largely boils down to spills per barrel shipped with rail having a larger spill rate than pipelines.
He noted that the U.S. state department has argued that if the Keystone XL is not approved, Canada could ship the oil by rail. This would require, however, a significant increase in railway infrastructure and cars, Stewart said. Keystone will have a capacity to ship 830,000 barrels a day or 302 million a year from Alberta to the Texas coast. Last year, Canada shipped 16.6 million barrels to the U.S. by rail.
Stewart said rail companies would have to increase shipments 15-fold to make up for the loss of Keystone.
“You would have to build new rail lines; you would have to build whole new rail companies to carry this,” he said. “And if you think you can do that without opposition after what has happened in Quebec you need to think again.”