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Saskatchewan Oil Spill Raises Questions About Safety Of Oil Transport By Rail

A freight train operated by Canada Pacific Railway Ltd. (CP) derailed yesterday morning and caused an oil spill outside Jansen, Saskatchewan, a small town about 150 km southeast of Saskatoon. CTV News reports that one of the cars leaked an estimated 575 barrels (more than 91,000 litres) of crude oil. Tank cars typically carry about 600 barrels of oil. No one is reported to have been hurt.

 

Environmental damage from the spill has apparently been contained by digging a berm around the leaked oil. CP has said that the oil was Western Canadian crude, not oil from the Albertan tar sands.

 

Guy Dixon and Nathan Vanderklippe write in the Globe and Mail, that the oil spill comes after Prime Minister Stephen Harper called oil transport by rail “more environmentally challenging” than pipelines, as part of his speech promoting Keystone XL in New York last week. Harper’s dubious point handily distracts from the fact that any mode of oil transport can and will lead to environmentally damaging oil spills, a consequence that will only become more common if Canada opens up the Albertan tar sands to further exploitation.

 

CP has refrained from attacking pipelines in turn. The Globe and Mail quotes CP spokesman Ed Greenberg as saying that both “pipelines and the rail industry are highly regulated, and both industries have programs and established standards, which work to make our systems secure and safe.”

 

Similarly, Michael Bourque, president and chief executive of the Railway Association of Canada, has remarked that rail is “very safe for moving oil. We move a lot of hazardous materials, and we have a really, really good safety record for moving all kinds of products.”

 

The US rail industry has been less friendly when reacting to the potential competition from pipelines. Dixon and Vanderklippe quote Holly Arthur, a spokesperson for the Association of American Railroads, who reminds the public that “Railroads are required to report anything, from a thimble-full to a spill. Pipelines are not required to report anything under five gallons.” Ms. Arthur adds that “[of] rail-spill incidents, 94 per cent are under five gallons.”

 

As Dixon and Vanderklippe note, “Oil-bearing trains have largely escaped activist notice, in part because climate-motivated opponents have taken aim at pipelines, which they see as enabling new oil sands expansion.”

 

But the rail industry could soon face greater scrutiny by environmental activists, with oil volumes on railroads increasing rapidly. CTV News reports that CP Rail has been increasing crude shipments as oil production from the tar sands rises. Canadian National Rail also expects to double its business this year, after transporting more than 30,000 carloads of crude to markets around North America in 2012.

 

Regardless of which mode of transport one argues for, the fact is that both lead to oil spills. As CTV News observes, the Jansen incident is one of several recent oil spills caused by rail accidents. In April, a derailment near White River, Ontario, caused about 63,000 litres of light crude oil to spill. In March, a CP train derailed in Minnesota, leaking about 76,000 litres, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. And in January, a collision caused a Canadian National train to spill about 1,000 litres near Paynton, Saskatchewan.

 

While the Harper government argues in favour of pipelines instead of rail transport, its agenda is being served by both industries, which continue to service Canadian oil. One hopes that the Jansen spill keeps the spotlight on the hazards of long-term dependence on oil, instead of distracting from the issue of impending pipelines.

 

Image Credit: Neal Jennings / Flickr

Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?
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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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The Narwhal’s reporters uncover energy stories that send shockwaves throughout Canada. But they can’t do it alone — we need to add 300 new members this month to meet our budget. Will you support crucial climate reporting that makes an impact?