Oil train derailment in Alberta and gas fracking protest in New Brunswick add to fossil fuel industry woes

Oil train derailment. Fracking protests. A shut-down of a major pipeline hearing. Public relations failures continue to mount for Canada's fossil fuel industry. 

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The Gainford accident comes less than a week after a pro-fossil fuel industry working committee of the Alberta and British Columbia governments threatened to fast-track a plan for shipment of oil-by-train (tar sands bitumen) from Alberta to the BC coast. A consortium including CN Rail and the Chinese, state-owned tar sands company Nexen says it could transport the equivalent of Northern Gateway to an export terminal to be built in Prince Rupert on the northern BC coast using seven, 100-wagon trains per day. The plan was revealed last month by Greenpeace Canada researcher Keith Stewart using access to information procedure.

This plan would use the very track on which the accident that occurred at Gainford.

The oil-by-train threat is prompted by the ongoing ‘wall of opposition’ in BC to the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline to Kitimat (south of Prince Rupert) that Enbridge Inc says it wants to build. It was reported as front page news in Vancouver on October 16. Needless to say, the more the number of train accidents grows, the harder it will be to sell such a plan. Opposition to tar sands pipelines and ocean-going tankers is so strong that the BC government has been obliged to posture as an ardent defender of strict ‘environmental safety and standards’ on any movement of oil or bitumen (all the while working furiously behind the scenes, out of public scrutiny, to realize the project).

Safety and oil-by-rail—like mixing oil and water

The notion that the movement of oil by rail can be made safe is a steady theme of the fossil fuel-promoting efforts of the federal, Alberta and BC governments. As the black clouds from the propane fires were billowing over Gainford on Oct. 19, federal Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt was telling the Globe and Mail that the rail transport system is safe. “Over 99.9 per cent of the time, the dangerous good makes it to its final destination. “

But she couldn’t avoid the shadow that looms over all present and future talk of oil train safety in North America—the July 6 oil train disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec that killed 47 of the town’s residents. Raitt said, “ But all that being said, we still lost 47 people and it’s up to us to ensure that if there are mitigating things we can do, that we can learn from, that’s what we should be doing.”

Raitt was assigned as transport minister three months ago. She is a lawyer by training.

Alberta’s Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, Diana McQueen, told the same edition of the Globe, “This weekend is absolutely very, very unfortunate. But when we look over all at some of the statistics on rail … about 99 per cent of all dangerous goods rail shipments reach their destination safely.”

Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, the chief shill for the federal government’s fossil fuel promotion, including its recent ‘pipeline or else rail’ theme, told the Globe and Mail on Sept 25 that the “overall” safety record of the railways “has been a very good one”.

The federal government said it is “taking action” for better rail safety, repeating that message in last week’s speech opening a new session of Parliament. It put on quite a show for the speech by inviting the mayor of Lac Mégantic to sit in as a special guest.

But the government is refusing a key demand of provincial and municipal governments—that they be informed in advance of the movement of dangerous rail cargo through their jurisdictions.

It has failed to act upon safety recommendations by its own railway agencies in recent years. And it continued and extended the policies of previous Liberal governments of devolving the responsibility for rail safety to the companies themselves in the respective industries.

When a Toronto Star asked CN Rail for the name of the shipper of the wagons that derailed in Gainford, the answer was ‘no’, because such information is protected by “client privilege”.

Bruce Campbell, executive-director of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, has just published a study on the systematic erosion of railway safety that contributed to the tragedy at Lac-Mégantic,  titled, ‘The Lac-Mégantic Disaster: Where Does the Buck Stop?’

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