Yet Another Oil Conflagration in Canada Caused by Train Derailment

Reuters reports that at 1 a.m. on Oct. 19, 13 cars of a CN train hauling oil and LPG derailed in Alberta. One car exploded and three others caught fire. Fortunately, there were no injuries, unlike July's fatal conflagration in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

According to Reuters, this is the "third Canadian National Railway derailment in recent weeks and is likely to fan opposition to the crude-by-rail boom taking place in Canada as the country's oil producers seek alternatives to congested pipelines." The two prior train accidents did not involve crude oil. 

Rail safety has become a central issue in Canada since the incident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, [on July 6], when a runaway train carrying crude products exploded in the center of the town, killing 47 people. 

Nine of the derailed cars [in Saturday's derailment] were carrying liquefied petroleum gas [LPG, also called propane] and four carried crude. The crude oil cars were intact and kept away from the fires with no indications of any leaks.

This incident may not be the last. As Planetizen blogger Michael Dudley wrote in "Lessons from Canada's Summer of Sorrow" on July 16: "All across Canada, there are towns like Lac-Mégantic that have been built around railways used to transport passengers and wood products. But as many passenger trains have been cancelled, these rail tracks have become chemical hazard highways, often unknown to the cities they go through."

Residents of Gainford, Alberta, population 100; 53 miles from the provincial capital Edmonton, were evacuated. At the time the Reuters report was published, the fire was not contained.

"We have cars on fire right now and there was an explosion earlier this morning. The major priority right now for our guys out in the field is containing these fires," said Parkland County spokesman Carson Mills.

According to the Association of American Railroads, there was "roughly the equivalent of 594,600 barrels per day" of petroleum and petroleum products hauled by rail daily Canada in the week ending Oct. 13, "up 13 percent from the same week in 2012". Reuters adds that "(t)he growth shows no sign of slowing."

Oil producers have turned to rail rather than pipelines for several reasons:

  • There may be an absence of pipelines, leaving rail as the main alternative, such as "out of the Williston Basin, which holds the Bakken formation" in North Dakota, or pipelines that are running at full capacity. 
  • Some planned pipelines, most notably Keystone XL, have been stalled while waiting for approval. 
  • Others have been rejected, such as the Northern Gateway Pipeline by British Columbia.  
  • And sometimes, oil refineries opt for crude-by-rail rather than funding new pipelines, such as the Freedom Pipeline from Texas to California.

Critics question the safety of relying on rail for moving such large amounts of oil. Referring to Saturday's CN explosion, Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator at Greenpeace, Canada, remarked, "This is becoming the new normal as we have movements of crude-by-rail skyrocketing at a time when the safety standards have not kept up".

Full Story: Train carrying oil, liquid petroleum gas derails in Alberta

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