Pipeline or rail: a debate without context

The latest CN train derailment in Alberta involving cars containing crude oil, coming on the heels of the deadly Lac Mégantic disaster in Quebec, is bringing Canada’s dramatic rise in transport of oil by rail into sharp focus.

And for good reason. 

Close to 275,000 barrels of crude are now shipped by rail every day, criss-crossing through towns and cities. That’s up from almost none five years ago. 

The media has been abuzz about the best and safest way to get more tar sands oil to thirsty markets: pipeline or rail? 

The Fraser Institute, ever the opportunists, published a report on the matter this month. The right-wing think tank argues that pipelines are demonstrably safer, and that opposition to them (Keystone XL, Northern Gateway and Energy East) promises to expose Canadians to higher risk involving a product that will find its way to market one way or another.

What you won't read in the Fraser Institute's report is what makes shipping oil by rail so dangerous. Lack of regulation, for one, allows the industry to police itself.

But pipelines are prone to devastating spills, too, and there’s good evidence those spills, on balance, are bigger and more damaging than rail.

What a convenient frame for the oil industry and the Fraser Institute. Here's the problem: Canada has no plan to reduce climate pollution, so this rail versus pipeline debate is happening in a vacuum. That needs to change if we're going to have an informed discussion.

But we're still waiting for the government's twice promised emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector, and we know that even with regulations, Canada will fail to meet our modest target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020.

Too bad Harper's government has been so busy gutting our emissions monitoring capacity.

Photo: shannonpatrick17. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.

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