Following the Lac-Mégantic train disaster, the federal government committed to bringing in new standards for rail safety. Months have passed, and nothing much has happened. New rules to improve the transport of crude oil by rail are critical given the evolution of transportation routes in Canada – the railroads are rapidly being turned into replacement pipelines – and reform must not become bogged down in long rounds of study and delay.
After 47 people died in the derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in July, Canadians were stunned to discover the growing risks of a new industry that had emerged to transport huge volumes of oil by rail car. As producers began to drill the massive Bakken oil field, centred in North Dakota, they quickly concluded the only effective transportation option was to load the oil into rail cars, sparking a boom in rail transit from Western wells to Eastern refineries. In the space of eight years, the volume of crude oil moved by rail in North America is believed to have climbed roughly 100-fold – from 4,000 carloads in 2006 to almost 400,000 by 2013.
It is an unsurprising development, given the controversies and delays surrounding the expansion of the North American pipeline system, the main means of moving oil. But the rail trend is concerning, not just because of the volumes of oil winding across the country on trains, but also because the nature of the oil being transported. Much of it is different from traditional crude, and more dangerous. Oil from the new Bakken field has a composition that can make it more explosive than traditional oil, but regulators appeared largely unaware of the heightened danger.
A Globe and Mail investigation published in November demonstrated how safety regulations have failed to keep pace with the emergence of the new shipping trend. Crude oil is not even included on the list of substances deemed high-risk for transportation. The rules say that high-risk goods must have detailed emergency response assistance plans – known as ERAPs – in place in the event of an accident. Moving oil into the high-risk category will not help prevent derailments, but it is a bare-minimum formal acknowledgment of the danger, and it would mean that more equipment and information would have to be available to respond to any accident, spill or fire.
When asked about adding crude oil to the ERAP system in December, Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said it is an "urgent priority." She said she expected the new rules to be in place by mid-2014. Asked about the ERAP issue again this week, a spokesman for the minister said the government's advisory committee is "examining whether we need further measures" for crude and other flammable liquids. The wording may not have been intended to sound like a weakening in the commitment to act, but it was not a strong endorsement.
Transport Canada has unfortunately earned a reputation for moving slowly on railway safety regulations. The issue of adding crude oil to the ERAP system was reviewed by Transport Canada in 2006, 2008 and 2012, but no action was taken. Canada's auditor-general issued a report in November on Transport Canada's oversight of rail safety and concluded that despite discussions with the industry and progress over the past 20 years, a number of long-standing safety issues remain unresolved. Ms. Raitt herself acknowledged in December that "we have seen conversations and consultations that seem to go on for 10 years and 15 years," without decisions being made.
The encouraging news is that Transport Canada has already unveiled new regulations to address another key concern – the inaccurate labelling of materials contained in rail cars. As The Globe reported in November, there had been no requirement for shippers to prove the classification of dangerous goods being transported, and some appeared to be exploiting loopholes that allowed them to skip testing requirements. Rules announced last week create new requirements for companies to sample and vouch for the contents of rail cars and keep better records about testing done to determine the nature of specific batches of oil.
Progress is not as clear, however, on improving the safety of the rail cars that carry flammable materials, such as crude oil. On Jan. 10, the federal government announced new design regulations for the construction of new tank cars. That merely brings Canada's rules in line with standards in the U.S., and with widely used industry construction practices for new cars.
The more important question is what will happen to older, less safe cars that are in circulation. They've been effectively grandfathered, and are not covered by the new construction standards. They still account for 85 per cent of rail cars that move flammable liquids today. They should be phased out or retrofitted quickly, with a mandatory deadline. So far, however, no rule is in place to compel timely action. Even the Association of American Railroads – whose members include Canada's largest railroad companies – has called on regulators to create an "aggressive" timetable to phase out or retrofit old cars. The adoption of a deadline is another urgent issue that must not be allowed to languish unaddressed. Regulators should also be looking at a plan being discussed by U.S. officials and major railways, to consider moving crude oil on less populated routes already used for highly dangerous goods such as radioactive materials.
Railways snake through the centres of many of Canada's towns and cities, and residents are rightly worried about emerging new dangers caused by a big shift in what's inside those rail cars. Ms. Raitt said she has given her advisory committee until the end of January to report on reforms stemming from the Lac-Mégantic disaster. She must stand by that commitment.