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The federal agency investigating the Lac-Megantic oil train derailment and explosion that killed forty-seven people released recommendations last week to improve the safety of shipping crude oil by rail. If the recommendations are implemented by the federal government they will serve as a strong step forward in protecting communities living along railway lines.
“The federal transport minister has a clear choice: protect public safety or secure profits of oil companies,” says Keith Stewart, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.
One of the country’s most active lobby groups – the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) – responded to the recommendations earlier this week. CAPP asked the federal government “to ensure their implementation does not interrupt service and respects the competitiveness of transporting our products by rail.” In other words, new regulations should not interfere with business as usual for the oil industry.
“Companies have to pay the price for safety. Their profits cannot come before communities, the environment and general safety,” John Bennett, director of the Sierra Club Canada told DeSmog Canada.
The Transport Safety Board (TSB) made three recommendations to Transport Canada improve safety of oil-by-rail shipments: tougher standards for the susceptible-to-rupturing DOT 111 tank cars, strategic routing of oil trains that considers the environment and communities, and emergency response plans for rail lines transporting large volumes of oil.
Greenpeace and the Sierra Club welcome the recommendations. Both organizations have been pushing for stricter oil by rail transport rules since before disaster struck Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6th of last year. Rail company CN also supports the TSB’s recommendations. Rail tank cars are owned either by shipping companies or oil producers. Rail companies on the other hand own the rails, and are liable for derailments.
The recommendations focus on tank cars, not the rails themselves, which is one of the shortcomings of the recommendations. Improvements on both are needed.
Recommendations cannot protect the public if they are not implemented. Bennett is not very optimistic the recommendations will be applied by the federal government. Many TSB recommendations in the past, he says, have “just sat there” and were not adopted, like rail line improvement recommendations made after the Lake Wabamun derailment in Alberta in 2005.
Stewart speculates the federal government will wait to see what the U.S. does, something he thinks is very problematic.
“Lives are at risk. Canada should be taking a leadership role,” Stewart told DeSmog from Toronto.
The TSB and the U.S. National Transport Safety Board announced their safety recommendations for oil-by-rail intentionally at the same time. Transport Canada has ninety days to reply to the TSB’s findings. Upon release of the recommendations in Ottawa on January 23rd, TSB chair Wendy Tadros insisted “change must come and it must come now.”
If adopted, applying the recommendations may prove to be difficult. Rerouting oil tank cars away from densely populated or environmentally sensitive areas is difficult due to Canada’s limited rail options.
Emergency response plans also require greater communication between shippers in the public, especially regarding large oil shipments. Shippers have been reluctant to do this in the past.
“Canadians need to ask themselves why are we doing this? Transporting oil more – whether by rail or pipeline – is a risk with little to no benefits for communities because it is going for export,” says Bennett, who is based in Ottawa.
“We already have enough infrastructure to meet our own oil consumption needs,” Bennett told DeSmog Canada.
Oil tank car shipments in Canada have dramatically jumped from five hundred carloads in 2009 to 160,000 last year, but Canada’s consumption of oil has declined during the same period. All of the recent pipeline proposals in Canada are destined to export oil out of the country with the exception of the Line 9 pipeline in Ontario and Quebec.
“The federal government would be more than happy for this debate to be rail versus pipeline oil shipments,” says Stewart.
“The debate should really be between dirty energy and clean energy and why we continue to invest billions in infrastructure for the fossil fuel industry when that money should be used to fight climate change and reduce our dependence on oil,” Stewart told DeSmog Canada.
The oilsands boom in Alberta and the Bakken shale oil boom in North Dakota coupled with stiff opposition to new pipeline approvals have been blamed for the massive increase in oil-by-rail transport in North America. In the US, oil tank carloads went from 10,800 in 2009 to 400,000 in 2013.
Image Credit: Transportation Safety Board
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Many oilsands projects will not have their potential environmental impacts reviewed by the federal government under updated rules announced today, environmentalists warn.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency released lists Friday outlining changes to the types of resource development and infrastructure projects that will routinely require a federal environmental assessment. The federal review is intended to look at possible environmental impacts under federal jurisdiction, such as impacts on waterways or greenhouse gas emissions.
One concern that environmentalists have with the new rules is they won’t require environmental reviews for a growing type of oilsands development.
In-situ oilsands developments — projects where the oil is melted directly out of the ground rather than being mined and then processed later — were not specifically addressed in the previous list of projects requiring federal environmental assessments, said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator and energy policy analyst for the environmental group Greenpeace. And now, they are not included in the new list of projects requiring them.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency’s announcement lists the types of projects that once required a federal environmental assessment that no longer do, including:
- Groundwater extraction facilities.
- Heavy oil and oilsands processing facilities, pipelines (other than offshore pipelines) and electrical transmission lines that are not regulated by the National Energy Board.
- Potash mines and other industrial mineral mines (salt, graphite, gypsum, magnesite, limestone, clay, asbestos).
- Industrial facilities (pulp mills, pulp and paper mills, steel mills, metal smelters, leather tanneries, textile mills and facilities for the manufacture of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pressure-treated wood, particle board, plywood, chemical explosives, lead-acid batteries and respirable mineral fibres).
The government also released a list of projects that did not specifically require a federal environmental assessment before but now do, including:
- Diamond mines.
- Apatite mines.
- Railway yards; international and interprovincial bridges and tunnels.
- Bridges that cross the St. Lawrence Seaway.
- Offshore exploratory wells.
- Oil sands mine expansions.
Focus on ‘major projects’
The government said the changes were made so that the agency’s work is focused on “major projects” that have the “greatest potential” to generate negative environmental impacts under federal jurisdiction, such as impacts on waterways, and other projects would not be “unduly burdened” with extra work.
The federal government heard from a wide range of stakeholders, including industry and environmental groups, before deciding what would be covered under the new rules.
Stewart said that while the government acknowledged environmental groups’ concerns, it did not make changes based on those concerns.
Most notably, he said Greenpeace is concerned about the lack of routine environmental assessments of in-situ oilsands developments. He noted that this type of project is the source of a huge bitumen leak Northern Alberta. As of the end of September, the leak near Cold Lake had already released 1.5 million litres of bitumen – a mixture of oilsands, heavy crude and water into the environment. The Alberta government has ordered the project operator, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., to drain two-thirds of a lake in an effort to stop the leak.
Stewart said 80 per cent of known oilsands deposits are so deep that they are only accessible with in-situ technology.
“Yesterday, Environment Canada released report which projected that by 2020, this type of oilsands development will be generating more greenhouse gas emissions than all of the Maritime provinces put together today,” he added.
“They’re exempting themselves from environmental oversight over what’s going to be the biggest source of new pollution in the country in coming decades.”
The group that represents oilsands producers said developments will still face provincial environmental reviews.
“The province still has a mandate to do an assessment, so this eliminates two layers of doing the same thing — the provincial government will still do its review and it will be equally as comprehensive,” said Geraldine Anderson from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
While acknowledging that provincial environmental assessments will still be required for some projects, Stewart calls the permitting process for in-situ oilsands development in Alberta “a rubber stamp.”
In 2012, the federal government announced a major overhaul of the federal environmental assessment program, introducing fixed timelines for major projects and reducing the number of departments and agencies that can do environmental reviews from 40 to just three.
- Major oil, gas and provincial pipelines excluded from list requiring environmental reviews (o.canada.com)
- Ottawa backs off environmental assessments of oilsands projects (calgaryherald.com)
- Ottawa seems to be backing off oil sands assessment (macleans.ca)
- Fastest-Growing Emissions Source Won’t Get Canada Review (bloomberg.com)
- Muzzling of federal scientists widespread, survey suggests – Technology & Science – CBC News (olduvaiblog.wordpress.com)
- Line 9 protests see hundreds converge in downtown Toronto – Toronto – CBC News (olduvaiblog.wordpress.com)