January 8, 2014 7:35 pm

Crude oil spills are bigger from trains than pipelines

ABOVE: The latest train derailment is raising fresh questions about the safety of moving crude oil by rail. Vassy Kapelos reports.

The flaming wreckage of a derailed train carrying crude in northern New Brunswick once again calls into question the safest way to transport crude oil across Canada.

A Global News analysis found that train spills in transit are larger than those from pipelines. And trucks, though they have a higher rate of accidents, tend to spill much less.

The Transport Canada database doesn’t include the most recent train accidents that have gripped the country – notably Lac-Megantic and Plaster Rock, NB. But it shows three major train accidents that spilled tens of thousands of litres of crude while in transit.

crude spill volumes

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Although the train accidents tend to be large, they are less frequent than those from trucks or pipelines, according to Global News’ calculations.

The two recent train explosions were also quite unique in recent Canadian history. According to the data, Lac Megantic was the first explosion of train cars carrying crude oil since 2006.

Between January 1, 2006 and June 30, 2013, almost one third of all dangerous goods accidents on rail or road involved crude oil – much more than any other substance. But most of the 1,556 accidents in this time period happened while the vehicle was being loaded or unloaded; 645, or 41 per cent, happened in transit.

Shifting modes of transit

“The preference is pipelines,” said Graham White, spokesperson for Enbridge, the company behind the Northern Gateway project – a pipeline that would take crude from Alberta to Kitimat, BC and got a federal review panel’s stamp of approval late last year.

Because pipelines are underground, White said, they’re not subject to traffic and weather conditions, the volume is easily controlled and the flow is continuous.

They’re also cheaper: $5 to $9 per barrel of oil through a pipeline, compared to $10 to $20 per barrel by train, he said. Jessica Wilkinson, spokesperson for oilsands producer Cenovus, gave similar figures: $7 to $10 per barrel by pipeline versus $15 to $18 by train.

Oil companies’ preference may be pipelines, but the volume of oil shipped by train has grown exponentially over the past few years, according to Transport Canada: 4.3 million metric tonnes of crude oil and bitumen were transported in 2012, up from 375,000 the year before.

In the third quarter of 2013, Cenovus produced, on average, almost 177,000 barrels of oil a day, and transported fewer than 10,000 barrels a day by train. But the company hopes to triple that amount by the end of 2014.

CN Rail says it moved approximately 30,000 carloads of crude oil in 2012, and double that in 2013; the company aims to double the number of carloads again over the next two years.

But it may have to prove its cargo’s safety first.

CN CEO Claude Mongeau told reporters Wednesday the continuing fire at the derailment site in New Brunswick was “very controlled.”

“We don’t have a lot of information, we are assessing as we speak,” he said, adding that the environmental impact “hopefully will be manageable.” But the fire’s a priority for now.

“We have the equipment, we have the people and we have all the procedures in place to deal with it in a safe manner.”

“Railways complement the existing pipeline infrastructure and they are just as safe and as environmentally sustainable as pipelines in moving energy to market,” CN spokesperson Mark Hallman wrote in an email.

“Roughly 99.998 per cent of hazardous material carloads moving by rail arrive at their destination without a release caused by an accident.”

The biggest pipeline accidents, including one in 1980 in Alberta where 6.5 million litres of crude were spilled, dwarf the biggest train accidents. The largest spill of crude oil from a train (between January 1, 2006 and June 30, 2013) was 90,000 litres on May 21, 2013.

But the average train spill in transit is far larger than the average in-transit pipeline spill.

And pipelines spill more often.

Table: Accident rates for different modes of crude oil transportation


Source: Volumes from Statistics Canada, Transport Canada. Accident counts from Transport Canada for rail and truck, provincial governments and NEB for pipeline. Volumes estimated using crude oil density of 0.9 kg/l. There were no in-transit rail accidents in 2011, therefore 2012 data is used for comparison. Pipeline volume includes some diluent.

New rules, old risks?

In the wake of Lac-Megantic’s fatal derailment, Transport Canada put a new rule in place requiring trains carrying dangerous goods not be left unattended.

For the most part, though, new regulations seem focused on mitigating the effects of an incident after it happens. Rail companies are, as of October 17, required to tell municipalities at least once a year of any dangerous goods passing through. And Raitt told the Globe and Mail she’d reclassify crude oil as a “highly dangerous substance,” which would require rail companies to prepare emergency response plans, including specially-trained response teams along the route.

“[Finding out] six months later what kind of products are transiting our city, it’s good for the training, it’s good for the evacuation plan,” said Claude Dauphin, President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

“But it doesn’t help too much for the response if anything happens.”

Transport Canada says it inspects companies transporting dangerous goods by air, ship and train “regularly” and performed 6,130 dangerous goods inspections between January 1, 2009 and December 31, 2012, looking at goods classification, means of containment, training, safety markings, documentation and reporting. Although the Transport of Dangerous Goods Act also applies to trucks, provinces are responsible for inspecting road vehicles.

So what is the safest way to move oil? Some argue that’s the wrong question.

“I think the real question is, ‘Should we be moving more oil, period?’” said Barry Robinson, a staff lawyer with the environmental group Ecojustice.

“That’s the question Canadians haven’t answered yet: Given the impacts we have on water, and air and wildlife at 2 million barrels per day in the oilsands, do we really want to go from 2 million to 5 million barrels a day? And if we don’t, then we don’t need all this rail and pipeline infrastructure.”

He says asking whether oil should be shipped by rail, pipeline or truck is a false dichotomy.

“That’s the discussion that the oil and gas industry wants to have. The oil and gas industry doesn’t want to discuss whether or not they should be producing. They just want to have a discussion about how to move this.”

With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

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