Quebec Rail Disaster Revives Oil Pipeline vs. Crude-By-Rail Debate

In a scene reminiscent of the Denzel Washington movie "Unstoppable", but without the heroic ending, an unmanned, 72-car oil train traveled 7 miles to Lac-Mégantic, pop. 6,000, where it derailed, setting off a fireball downtown. 5 fatalities so far.

July 8, 2013, 2:00 PM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Ian Austen writes of the devastation to the small, tourist town in Quebec, about 150 miles east of Montreal, caused by the rail explosion around 1:15 a.m. on Saturday, July 06. Why the train, operated by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway began rolling after it had been parked for the night is unclear. What is clear is that "the scale of the explosion and evacuation already would rank the accident as one of North America's most dramatic rail incidents in recent years", write Carolyn King, David George-Cosh and Alistair MacDonald in the Wall Street Journal. 

The explosion sheds light on the safety issues associated with the transition of oil transport from pipeline to "crude-by-rail", and the pending application of TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline to ship oil sands crude from Alberta to Gulf region refineries.  While the MM&A oil train carried oil from North Dakota's Williston Basin that had been shipped to Quebec by Canadian Pacific, destined for the Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, the safety concerns are the same. The route would have taken it through Maine.

"An analysis of the pipeline plan for the State Department concluded that if the pipeline was rejected, oil sands producers would instead turn to railways for shipments to the United States", writes Austen.

Speaking in New York in May, (Canadian Prime Minister Stephen) Harper emphasized that the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline would lead to an increase in oil sands shipments by rail, which he called “more environmentally challenging” than pipelines.

To read a chilling description of the crash when it occurred, Carolyn King and David George-Cosh of the Wall Street Journal interviewed revelers at Lac-Mégantic's Musi-Café, "a popular patio bar near the railroad tracks", who experienced firsthand the early-morning explosion.

Monday, July 8, 2013 in The New York Times

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