Deadly Blast Underscores Debate over Oil Transport

By Austen, Ian | International Herald Tribune, July 9, 2013 | Go to article overview

Deadly Blast Underscores Debate over Oil Transport


Austen, Ian, International Herald Tribune


Runaway railroad cars that exploded in Quebec killed at least five and underscored a debate about whether pipelines or trains are the best way to transport crude oil.

Five people were confirmed dead and 40 were missing Monday after runaway railroad tank cars filled with oil derailed and exploded in a small Quebec town, the police said.

The derailment and explosions, which took place in Lac-Megantic at around 1:15 a.m. on Saturday, underscored a debate in the effort to transport North America's oil across long distances: Is it safer and less environmentally destructive to move huge quantities of crude oil by train or by pipeline?

On Monday, firefighters were working to stop oil spilling into the Chaudiere River which feeds into the St. Lawrence, The Associated Press reported. Floating barriers were set up to try to stop the oil from heading downstream. The Quebec government issued a statement saying the leak was "serious, but under control," The A.P. said.

Visiting the town on Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper compared it to a "war zone." Lt. Michel Brunet of Quebec's provincial police told reporters, "we know there will be more deaths."

Fires, which incinerated at least 30 buildings in the center of Lac-Megantic, a tourist town of 6,000 people about 150 miles, or 240 kilometers, east of Montreal, limited the work of accident investigators, as well as attempts to search for survivors and the remains of victims.

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway said the train had been parked outside Lac-Megantic for the night with no crew members on board. Its locomotive had been shut down, "which may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place," it said in a statement.

The railway did not respond to further questions, but Reuters, quoting company officials, said the oil aboard the train had come from the Bakken oil fields that stretch through North Dakota and Montana.

The Bakken oil deposits, which are often drilled through hydrofracking, have become a major source of oil for the railroads to move because the deposits lack direct pipeline links. Canada's oil sands producers, frustrated by a lack of pipeline capacity, are also turning to trains to ship their products.

The move to rail comes as the Obama administration continues to weigh an application for the Keystone XL pipeline, which would deliver synthetic crude oil and bitumen, an oil-containing substance, from Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast. An analysis of the pipeline plan for the U.S. State Department concluded that if the pipeline was rejected, oil sands producers would instead turn to railways for shipments to the United States.

Both the Canadian National Railway and the Canadian Pacific Railway have extensive rail networks into the United States and have been promoting what the industry often calls a "pipeline on rails" to serve the oil sands. Mark Hallman, a spokesman for Canadian National, said the railway moved 5,000 carloads of crude oil to the United States from Canada in 2011, increased that amount to 30,000 carloads in 2012 and "believes it has the scope to double this business in 2013. …

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