Graham Thomson: By pipeline or rail, shipping oil is dangerous

The debate over oil pipelines has hit a new high — or more correctly, a new low — in the wake of the fatal train derailment and explosion in the Quebec community of Lac-Mégantic on Saturday.

The author of an opinion piece in one of Canada’s national newspapers correctly pointed out Monday that when it comes to shipping oil, pipelines are statistically safer than railways.

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But then she took the argument a step too far by stating if the oil on board the tankers involved in Saturday’s disaster had been shipped “through pipelines, instead of rail, families in Lac-Mégantic would not be grieving for lost loved ones today.”

It is a breathtakingly callous comment to make as the death toll rises and the community continues to search for missing residents. It is an argument that seems just a hair split away from suggesting that anyone opposed to pipelines must be supporting train derailments.

But expect to hear similar statements in the weeks ahead based on the premise that if you must ship large quantities of oil over long distances, the most efficient and safest method is by pipeline.

If we, for example, need to ship Alberta’s bitumen to New Brunswick through the proposed Energy East pipeline, it will be much safer to do it by pipeline than by rail car.

That’s an argument supported by statistics, just like the statistics that say if you must travel a long distance, it is much safer to fly on a commercial jet than drive in a passenger car. That doesn’t mean planes don’t sometimes crash spectacularly or pipelines don’t occasionally spring a catastrophic leak; it just means that if you must ship oil and if you must travel, pipelines and planes are the safer option.

But what if you don’t have to fly? And what if you don’t have to transport large quantities of oil across the continent? This is where the pipeline-is-better argument starts to break down. The argument only makes sense if you believe we absolutely have to ship hundreds of thousands of barrels of bitumen every day from Alberta to be upgraded in New Brunswick for shipment overseas.

Alberta, of course, has to ship oil to generate income. Same with the oil sector. Both argue that the Alberta-based industry is the economic engine of Canada.

However, a lot of Canadians aren’t convinced we need to build more pipelines to ship more Alberta bitumen to Asia. They don’t see the environmental risk being worth the economic reward, especially if that reward is enjoyed largely in Alberta.

Just look at the antipathy of many British Columbians to the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline that would pump Alberta’s bitumen to the West Coast for shipment overseas.

There’s an irony here. The reality is that if people try to prevent the shipment of more Alberta bitumen to market, they’ll likely be much more successful stopping yet-to-be approved pipeline projects than they will be shutting down the already-approved method of shipping oil by rail car.

We already ship a lot of oil by rail in this country. In fact, in the past five years we’ve seen a massive increase in oil shipped by rail in Canada. In 2009, we had about 500 carloads of oil on the tracks. This year, we’re expecting to see 140,000 carloads.

If the Lac-Mégantic explosion were to spur protests against the shipment of oil, those protests might turn out to be more successful against the Energy East pipeline and thus leave oil companies with no alternative but to transport more oil by rail car.

The fact remains pipelines are statistically safer than rail.

But another fact is that no matter how many pipelines we build, we’ll also always be shipping oil, or other potentially dangerous substances, by rail.

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