How safe is transporting oil by rail?

Watch: Global National’s Allison Vuchnich reports on how over-land transportation of oil doesn’t eliminate the risk of accidents and spills.

The petroleum car explosion that set Lac Mégantic aflame and killed at least five people has also thrust oil transport into the spotlight.

Pipeline proponents will point to this as one more example that shipping hydrocarbons by train is more risky than piping the stuff underground; environmentalists will argue this is another indication Canada’s falling behind when it comes to regulating the swiftly growing business of transporting hazardous materials by rail.

The transport of bitumen and crude oil by train has increased more than 500-fold in a matter of years, according to transport Canada: from 8,062 metric tonnes in 2009 to 4.3-million in 2012.

In depth: Multimedia coverage of the Lac Mégantic explosion

CN Rail spokesman Mark Hallman said the company plans to double the 33,000 carloads of oil shipped last year.

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That’s fuelled in part by newly exploited oil reserves in places such as the Bakken region that don’t have pipeline infrastructure nearby. But as projects such as TransCanada’s Keystone XL and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway become mired in opposition or stymied altogether, energy giants are relying increasingly on trains to get their oil to market.

Enbridge, for example, opened its first train loading facility last year in Berthold, North Dakota; it plans to open its second in Cheechum later this year.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the company whose train cars barrelled downhill toward a fiery implosion at Lac Mégantic this weekend, has benefited from the surge in demand for crude transport: At this time last year, the company was marvelling at the good fortune that helped lift it out of milliond of dollars in red ink – shipping petroleum from North Dakota and Saskatchewan to Irving Oil refineries out east was “a lot of business and produces a lot of revenue,” CEO Robert Grindrod told the Bangor Daily News in July, 2012.

Rail companies contend that trains are as safe as any other mode of transport. Some of the numbers tell a different story.

Rail accidents are much smaller, on average, than pipeline spills. But they’re more frequent.

Manhattan Institute researcher Diana Furchtgott-Roth has found that it’s proportionately more dangerous to trek oil by rail than by pipeline: Trains carting oil can have more than three times as many accidents,  per tonne and per mile, than their pipeline counterparts.

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This, Furchtgott-Roth argues, should be enough to push policy-makers toward pipeline approvals.

But activists such as the Sierra Club’s John Bennett see this incident rate instead as impetus for stricter rules. Last year, even as Montreal, Maine & Atlantic and other companies were expanding their oil shipments, environmental officials in Maine were rethinking the way they approach train safety in light of recent spills.

Canadian environmental groups point to a 700,000-litre oil spill near Wabamun, Alberta in 2005. An investigation arising from that devastating spill recommended much more stringent rules to ensure tracks are in good condition.

“We had those recommendations. Why weren’t they acted on in the last six years?”

And a wide-ranging review shortly afterward – sparked both by the Wabamun spill and a concurrent spike in train accidents – found a regulatory framework out of pace with an evolving industry – one that needed better enforcement tools and clearer definitions of what Transport Canada’s job was as regulator.

But not much was done, Bennett contends. Instead, the transport of oil by rail “has been allowed to just mushroom without any similar increase in inspections of the rails or changes in the rules. It’s been business as usual,” he said, “as though this wasn’t a major threat. And it’s clearly been a major threat. And it’s unfortunate we couldn’t get this raised in in the public sooner. … We had those recommendations. Why weren’t they acted on in the last six years?”

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In a statement released Sunday, Transport Minister Denis Lebel said he would take action “should any deficiencies be identified” as a result of investigations into the accident.

“We have increased the number of inspectors and auditors and we have implemented the new Railway Safety Act which requires rail companies to create and maintain a culture of safety and will penalize rule breakers with tough new penalties,” the statement reads.

“Safety is our top priority, day-in and day-out.”

Read more: Pipeline delays mean more oil trekked by train – how safe is it?

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