CALGARY – Crude oil moved along Canadian railway lines in unprecedented volumes in 2013 as delays in building new pipelines caused oil companies, clamouring to reach the most lucrative markets, to seek out alternative paths.
The crude-by-rail trend had been gathering steam quietly in recent years. But after the disaster in Lac Megantic, Que., it could no longer fly under the radar.
On July 6, an unattended train laden with 7.6 million litres of volatile crude barrelled into the town, setting off an inferno that killed 47 people.
Beefed up safety measures have been announced since then, but there will likely be more to come in 2014 as formal investigations into what happened in Lac Megantic unfold. The effect of those changes on the economics of crude-by-rail remains to be seen.
“A year ago I didn’t even know we moved oil by rail, and I follow the industry fairly closely,” said Greenpeace climate campaigner Keith Stewart, who started delving into the issue in February.
When news of Lac Megantic broke, Greenpeace had been working on a campaign to make the public aware that crude moves by rail — and that the practice is risky, Stewart said.
“We no longer had to explain either of those things.”
In 2011, around 68,000 carloads of fuel oils and crude petroleum were moving along Canadian rail lines, according to Statistics Canada. In 2012, that rose to nearly 113,000. Between January and September of 2013 — the most recent data available — some 118,000 carloads had already been moved.
The Association of American Railroads estimates 400,000 crude carloads will move in the U.S. in 2013, up from 234,000 in 2012 and just 9,500 in 2008.
In the aftermath of Lac Megantic, Ottawa introduced rules for trains carrying dangerous goods, such as ensuring trains are properly secured, aren’t left unattended on main line tracks and are staffed by crews of at least two.
Since then, there have also been new rules introduced on how dangerous goods are labelled and how cities, through which the trains pass, are informed.
“It has been a collaborative effort,” said Michael Bourque, head of the Railway Association of Canada.
Bourque said safety is the paramount concern.
“It is extremely disruptive to have an accident. It takes equipment out of service. It takes the line out of service. It takes management and other workers away from more productive pursuits,” he said.
“It can have enormous cost, and so safety is something that you can’t trade off for efficiency.”
Among the changes the railway association has called for is the replacement of older tank cars, which have long been criticized because their hulls are easily breached in an accident, with stronger ones.
“We want to aggressively phase out the older ones at least for service of flammable liquids. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be used for other things, but they would be phased out very quickly,” said Bourque.
Some of the older cars — which ordinarily would have a lifespan of 50 years — could be cleaned out and used to transport other goods.
“There are some practical questions about how quickly it can be implemented, given the backlog of orders for rail tank cars,” said Ken Peel, a Toronto lawyer who speci