‘Pipeline or rail, the oil will flow’, say Alberta oil industry and Canada’s government

Following a visit by federal ministers to British Columbia last week to win over oil pipeline opponents, VO takes a look at what happened and what's to come. The pressure to expand oil-by-rail is relentless. Meanwhile, the oil train derailments are accumulating. And a recent editorial by Postmedia suggested that proposals to ship oil by truck on Canada's highways will be next.

Oil and Gas Industry - Refinery At Twilight photo from Bigstock

Popular opposition in Canada to limitless fossil fuel projects is on the rise. The latest (eighth) comprehensive report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is warning of dire consequences if the world doesn’t begin to sharply reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The number of derailments in crazed oil-by-rail schemes is mounting.

But none of this is slowing the frenetic efforts of Canada’s business elite and petro-state to expand fossil fuel production and transport. They are setting the stage for sharp political struggles in the coming years between those who care for the fate of the Earth and the humans who inhabit it, and those who care only for money and the accumulation of personal wealth.

West coast fossil fuel blitz

Federal government cabinet ministers have just completed a two-week blitz of the province of British Columbia to press for a full suite of fossil fuel projects in that province--two tar sands pipelines from Alberta to the BC coast; expanded natural gas fracking in the northeast, to be piped for liquefaction on the north coast; and expanded coal mining and export.

A particular target of the blitz were the scores of First Nations communities whose acceptance or acquiescence to these projects is vital. Pleas for the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline were soundly rebuffed by First Nations leaders. But reaction to the Trans Mountain tar sands line was muted, perhaps leaving room for some optimism for the industry.

Gas fracking and liquefaction, meanwhile, which will turn BC’s electrical energy production on its head and blow the province’s feigned greenhouse gas emission targets (resembling its pretend ‘five conditions’ for Northern Gateway) proceed out of the water, is getting some hopeful responses. Many First Nations leaders along the gas pipelines routes are willing to buy in if the price is right, even as those living in the northeast gas zones remain implacably opposed.

The ministers’ blitz is prompted by a very big dilemma facing tar sands producers in northern Alberta and conventional and fracked oil producers in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan (the latter sharing the Bakken field also lying underneath North Dakota). That is the landlocked location of the resource. Pipeline proposals to the south (Keystone XL) and west (Northern Gateway) are seriously stalled by public opposition. A new proposal to the east –a $12 billion, all-Canadian ‘Energy East’ pipeline— holds out hope, but it will take many years to build, and it may well come up against the kind of ‘wall of opposition’ that has halted Northern Gateway.

Madcap oil by rail

So into the picture enters oil by rail. If anything illustrates the danger to the public welfare of the oil industry, this has to be it. Only three years since the vast expansion of oil-by-rail movement began in North America, Canada has suffered the awful disaster at Lac Mégantic, Quebec in which 47 people died; two oil train derailments in the past three months alone in the center of its fourth largest city, Calgary; and now a derailment in the small town of Landis, Saskatchewan that saw authorities rush to evacuate children from a nearby primary school.

The pressure to expand oil-by-rail is relentless. The trade in North America has grown from near nothing in 2009 to a projected movement this year of 150,000 rail wagons in Canada and some 400,000 in the U.S.[i] Now two new plans are hitting the news.

A Denver-based company, Omnitrax, wants to ship fracked oil from North Dakota and Saskatchewan across the vast stretch of northern Manitoba to the port of Churchill on Hudson’s Bay. Tankers would then move the oil through sub-Arctic waters to North American refiners.[ii]

The company recently hired a Conservative Member of Parliament as its go-to guy for the project. Merv Tweed has resigned his elected post and been appointed as 'president' of the 'Canadian division' of Omnitrax. He is a good catch for the job. First elected in 2004 to a southern Manitoba riding, he served as chairperson of the transport committee of the House of Commons from 2006 to 2012.

Manitoba's government has come out in opposition to the Omnitrax plan in its present form. “Lac-Mégantic was a wake-up call for all Canadians,” says Minister of Transportation Steve Ashton. But his opposition is guarded. “Our advice to Omnitrax would be, go back to the drawing board on this,” he says.

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