Federal regulators need to recognize the danger in transporting Alberta crude oil

Commentary, Mary-Jane Bennett

Greenbrier tankers have been found to be twice as safe and eight times less likely to spill

Last Saturday, just outside the northeastern Ontario town of Gogama, 38 cars loaded with bitumen from Alberta’s oilsands derailed, triggering a series of fiery explosions; the massive blaze burned furiously until Monday, when it was finally extinguished. This accident came just three weeks after a CN freight train loaded with Alberta crude ran off the tracks outside the same Ontario town. That fire took more than a week to put out.

These two recent accidents outside one tiny Ontario community should push the federal government to rethink rail standards in oil shipment. Luck alone saved Gogama. CN’s trains derailed in wooded, unpopulated areas, and not into the town’s homes and businesses. Current tank car standards and classifications for Alberta crude are insufficient, putting Canadian lives at risk.

Given the massive increase in oil shipments by rail in the last five years, and an uptick in deadly accidents — like one at Lac-Mégantic, QC, which killed 47 people in July, 2013 — Canada desperately needs better regulation to more safely move oil on tracks. Two areas need immediate review. First, bitumen shipped by rail should be considered potentially flammable and subject to Transport Canada oversight in its testing and classification. And given the combustibility of crude, safer tank cars — with thicker shells and safety valves designed to release pressure in case of derailment — should be required to move the hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude now crossing the country every day.

Federal regulators are failing to recognize the volatility and potential danger in bitumen, the heavy Alberta crude that twice spilled outside Gogama. For years, it has been considered less volatile and safer to transport than oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. (In its recent report on the Lac-Mégantic derailment, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board likened the volatility of Bakken oil to gasoline.) But the recent bitumen spills at Gogama should give federal regulators, shippers and carriers pause. The widely-held industry belief that Alberta crude is safer than Bakken oil is wholly wrong.

On its own, bitumen is considered essentially non-flammable in a derailment. But to allow the thick, tarry crude to flow in and out of tank cars, a diluent is added; that diluent renders the product highly volatile. Alberta Innovates, a consortium of industry, government and university researchers, recently found that diluted bitumen, known as “dilbit,” has a volatility similar to Bakken crude. Transport Canada should therefore ensure the testing and categorization of it as a higher-class dangerous product, similar to the Bakken oil process.

The federal government should also reexamine its rail car policy. In the months leading up to the Lac-Mégantic spill, federal regulators were repeatedly warned that DOT-111 rail cars used to ship oil were inadequate, putting communities, first responders, railway employees and the environment at risk. Despite successive accidents involving the DOT-111s, those railcars remained the oil-by-rail workhorse until February, 2014. It was more than a year after Lac-Mégantic that federal regulators required they be refitted with sturdier CPC-1232 tank cars.

But even before their release, the CPC-1232 cars were plagued by safety concerns. Last June, for example, the TSB refused to endorse the cars, calling them “not sufficiently robust.” The TSB has claimed the cars “performed similarly to those involved in the Lac-Mégantic accident” and urged the federal government to “go further than the 1232 standard.”Recent accidents involving the cars should raise alarms: Both Gogama spills involved CPC-1232 cars. So did two others involving crude shipments in in West Virginia and Illinois in the last month.

The rail industry, concerned that authorities in both Canada and the U.S. are failing to recognize the failings of these tank cars, are proposing a new tank car for oil shipments. These cars would have thicker steel shells, a release valve allowing pressure to be released in case of fire and full steel shields to protect in the event of a rollover where cars tend to rip each other apart. These tankers, designed by Oregon’s Greenbrier Companies, have been found to be twice as safe as the CPC-1232s and eight times less likely to spill in testing. These are the types of cars Canada should be using to ship oil.

For now, opposition to proposed pipelines like Keystone XL and Northern Gateway that would move Alberta crude to ports in Texas and B.C. remains firm; unless that changes, rail will remain the preferred method for moving oil. Canada’s rail safety standards need to be modernized to protect residents of Gogama, Lac-Mégantic and thousands of other Canadian communities along shipment routes. More than luck should be protecting them.