Les Leyne: Rail cars roll through pipeline fight

Les Leyne mugshot genericMaybe Premier John Horgan’s showdown Sunday with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley will smooth out the pipeline argument.

But there’s an uncomfortable fact of life that has been pushed into the background by the pipeline battle that puts B.C. even deeper into a corner. It’s that rail cars are another option to move crude oil.

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They’re rolling now, they’ll continue or even increase regardless of the pipeline, and they’re at least as risky, if not more.

Adding to the awkwardness is the fact that B.C. has exactly the same amount of authority over rail traffic as it does over pipelines — next to none. And the NDP cabinet is the first to admit it.

Environment Minister George Heyman startled many people this week with a frank admission that government lawyers advised the NDP cabinet right after it was sworn in that it would be “unlawful and inappropriate” to keep uttering their campaign promise to “stop” the pipeline. He was also explicit about the reason for the caution — B.C. has no jurisdiction over pipelines.

“It was made clear to me, made clear to us, that issues of interjurisdictional immunity and paramountcy meant that we couldn’t simply do what we initially, in opposition, thought was an option for government.”

His colleague, Transportation Minister Claire Trevena, has acknowledged the same thing when it comes to rail movements of crude oil. The topic came up in the legislature last month and Trevena repeatedly conceded B.C. has no play.

“Our rail lines … are federally regulated. … Ministry staff, going through this, are not aware of any way … that [crude oil shipments] could be restricted.”

“The ministry’s regulatory framework, as far as we’re aware, does not allow us to do anything.”

Both ministers conceded the points under questioning by Abbotsford West Liberal MLA Mike de Jong. The B.C. Liberals are keen to exploit any weakness in the NDP anti-pipeline position. But de Jong has a personal interest, as well.

The CN main line runs 15 metres from the living room of his home on Matsqui Prairie, and the dramatic increase in the number of oil-tanker cars trundling past is more obvious to him than most people. The trains are much longer and they’re coming much more frequently.

More alarming is that they’ve barrelled down the Fraser Canyon to get to that point. For all the fear about a marine tanker spill, a rail spill by the river would be at least as serious, and is statistically a more likely possibility.

There’s been another remarkable admission about crude oil during legislature debate about the pipeline — the B.C. government has no clue about exactly how much diluted bitumen is moving through B.C.

It’s not a partisan point. The B.C. Liberals were just as much in the dark as the NDP are. Rules were enacted only recently to produce the information, and there are no hard provincial data on oil — how much, what kind and where it’s going.

Heyman said in the house: “We have not had the tools. We don’t have the information. I agree — we should have it. … But I can’t answer the question today with the kind of precision that I think I should be able to as minister.”

At one point, Trevena huddled with the CEO of B.C. Rail during debate on her spending estimates, then had to acknowledge they didn’t know if diluted bitumen was transported on the smaller provincially regulated line. “We haven’t been able to track that one down.”

By contrast, de Jong has brandished U.S. data that show Washington state’s ecology department has detailed quarterly reports on crude-oil movements by both rail and pipeline. And much of the rail movements come from B.C., near Bellingham.

It’s on the increase. Canadian government data on oil exported by rail shipments show the same thing, as do international forecasts.

Heyman is still talking about regulating oil rail traffic in some fashion, using what he has called “supplementary authority.”

It’s not clear yet how the pipeline argument would be resolved. But it looks clear that crude oil is going to move through B.C. one way or the other.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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