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Record amount of Canadian oil exported by rail raises safety concerns

Global News logo Global News 2019-01-08 Kaylen Small
a train on a steel track: According to National Energy Board data, Canadian oil exports by rail have hit record levels. © Global News According to National Energy Board data, Canadian oil exports by rail have hit record levels.

Canadian crude oil exports by rail have skyrocketed to record levels, raising safety concerns amid the boom.

In October 2017, Canada exported 137,178 barrels per day, according to National Energy Board statistics.

By May 2018, it was 198,788 barrels per day.

Then, in October 2018, rail exports hit a record high at 327,229 barrels per day — a 138.5 per cent volume increase in one year.

"The volume comes with the territory of being a successful place," said Gian-Carlo Carra, a Calgary city councillor. "As we know, we don't have pipelines to take Alberta products to tidewater and we're going to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting with the rail infrastructure we have — and we're very lucky to have such robust, nation-building infrastructure in the centre of our inland port."

He said this oil conversation is akin to ones he has with Calgary residents about traffic volumes.

"It's not volume that's the issue. It's speed that's the issue," Carra said. "We want to make sure that as more and more people move around and more and more products are moved around on rail that we're becoming safer and safer and safer, and more environmentally sensitive."

After CP tanker cars came off the tracks in Calgary near 30 Avenue S.E. at Alyth Road S.E. on Sunday, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has opened an investigation. No product spilled in the incident.

Carra said that Sunday's derailment was significant in that it highlighted a positive working relationship between all parties involved: CP Rail, firefighters, federal boards and different levels of government.

"It was low impact in the sense that they were empty cars but high impact in the sense that they went off the rails in a very sculptural way," Carra said.

Ryan Gill's marketing firm, Communo, neighbours the tracks. He hasn't noticed the increase in tanker traffic and isn't worried anyway because he said the trains move slowly.

"How else are they supposed to move the oil with no pipeline?" Gill said.

Concordia University professor Ming Yuan Chen and PhD student Omar Abuobidalla have been researching how to make hazardous goods rail transport safer since the 2014 train derailment and fatal explosion in Lac-Mégantic.

The researchers are hoping to reduce accident potential, but if they occur, then the goal is to reduce the negative impact on people.

Abuobidalla said population areas and how they change over time have to be considered.

"It should be some relation between how much we transport and this team," he said. "We have to increase the staff in the emergency response team."

Chen said rail cars containing dangerous goods should avoid heavily-populated areas — but if that's not an option, extra caution is necessary.

"From the knowledge that I have, it's less risky using pipelines to transport the liquid material, if possible," Chen said.

A pipeline is the safest and cheapest method to move oil; railway is the second cheapest way, he said.

"If you increase the amount of transportation, sooner or later you will have some incidents that will be happening," Chen said.

Under the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act and the Railway Safety Act, there are no limits to how much oil can be shipped by rail.

Transport Canada said safety rules have been improved with lower permitted speeds, hastened phase-out timelines for older tanker cars, more rail safety inspections and stronger rail tank car standards.

"Transport Canada has also taken significant actions to enhance public safety and further improve the safety of transporting dangerous goods by rail under the pillars of prevention, effective response and accountability," a statement to Global News read.


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