Opposition to west-east oil pipeline heats up as questions grow over shipping oil by rail

Steve Mertl
Oléoduc de TransCanada : la population divisée
Les citoyens du Témiscouata ont des opinions très partagées quant au projet de pipeline de TransCanada. La compagnie prévoit transporter du pétrole brut de l'Ouest canadien vers le Nouveau-Brunswick en passant par le Bas-Saint-Laurent

It's not surprising that the deadly Lac-Megantic rail disaster has reignited debate over the safest way to ship crude oil.

A runaway train carrying American crude to Maine via Canada derailed and exploded in the eastern Quebec town this month, killing at least 37 and likely as many as 50 residents.

The disaster shed light on the mushrooming use of rail to transport crude to refineries or for expert because existing pipelines are at full. CBC News noted statistics show shipments have soared from 6,000 train carloads in 2009 to an estimated 14,000 this year.

The accident produced debate over whether oil pipelines, whatever their risks, perhaps are a safer way of moving large volumes of oil than trainloads contained in fragile tank cars.

It's a timely discussion, considering major projects such as the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to take Alberta oil sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast, the Northern Gateway pipeline that proposes shipping it to the B.C. coast for export to Asia and the Energy East project that would pipe oil sands crude to Maritimes are facing major opposition from environmentalists.

[ Related: Safety rules lag as oil transport by train rises ]

The $5-billion Energy East project, which involves converting an existing natural gas pipeline from Western Canada and building new sections to reach refinery facilities at St. John, N.B., gained support in the wake of the Lac-Megantic crash.

But Ottawa environmentalists have begun mobilizing to oppose it because a section of the line to be converted runs through Stittsville, just west of the capital.

"We think it's an important issue that a lot of people in Ottawa probably don't know about yet," Ben Powless of Ecology Ottawa told CBC News. "But it really puts a lot of our ecology, a lot of our environment, our waterways and our health and our public safety at risk."

The 4,400-kilometre line, proposed by TransCanada Corp. is also not being embraced by the New Brunswick government. Energy Minister Craig Leonard has told CBC News the province won't subsidize the project.

The mayor of North Grenville, another community near Ottawa, played down the risk of environmental damage from the line.

"I believe it's a real benefit for Eastern Canada. It gives us a secure oil supply," David Gordon told CBC News. "At this point in time we're at the whims of foreign oil. It's going to create jobs."

[ Related: Energy East is good for Canada but not for the oilsands ]

The Energy East project's importance has grown in step with the possibility that the U.S. government might reject the Keystone XL line in the face of vocal opposition and the widespread rejection of Northern Gateway in British Columbia.

If it's also roadblocked, too, and governments rethink the safety of the existing rail transportation system, the question arises of how western oil sands crude can get to market?

CBC News noted that if Keystone XL is not approved, Canadian oil shipments could rise by another 42 per cent by 2017, presumably using the existing fleet of unreinforced tank cars like the ones that ripped open at Lac-Megantic. Experts have suggested both forms of transportation carry risks.

"North American oil is going to be delivered to national refineries one way or the other because of technological breakthroughs in drilling," Daniel J. Graeber wrote on Stockhouse last week.

"With production gains, accidents like last weekend's may become the new North American normal for oil."