Shipping oil by rail from Alberta to the B.C. coast is still very much on the table despite the recent rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, says Canada's Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver.
"That tragedy focused attention on this [safety] issue," Mr. Oliver said in an interview. "…The overall record has been a very good one, but we must not have that kind of tragedy reoccur, so steps have to be taken to prevent it."
Mr. Oliver spoke days before an annual meeting between provincial transportation ministers and their federal counterpart at which rail safety is expected to dominate the agenda. Provincial and municipal officials are calling for more information about the kinds of cargo moved by rail – information currently under federal control – as well as increased safety measures aimed at preventing the kind of tragedy that devastated the Quebec town.
"The focus should be on constructive discussion about how we can learn from what happened and hopefully ensure something like that never happens again," Manitoba Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said ahead of Wednesday's meeting in Winnipeg.
In July, a train carrying oil derailed in Lac-Mégantic. The resulting explosions, which left 47 people dead and levelled the town's core, cast a harsh spotlight on the risks of carrying hazardous goods by rail.
The notion of shipping oil by rail from Alberta to the coast is not new but has drawn increased attention in recent months, with The Globe and Mail reporting in January that Calgary-based Nexen Inc. had spent more than a year working on a plan to ship oil by rail to Prince Rupert.
Interest in the issue spiked again this week when environmental group Greenpeace released documents – obtained through an access to information request – that included a memo to federal ministers about the issue. One undated memo prepared for Mr. Oliver noted that "both Canadian Pacific and Canadian National have indicated that the potential to increase rail movements of crude oil is theoretically virtually unlimited" and that "creating additional rail capacity would not require significant lead time or resources."
Rail has gone from a marginal to a significant player when it comes to moving oil, Mr. Oliver said.
"I don't think it is a replacement for pipeline, but it is clearly an important supplement to pipelines," he said. "But you've got to think through what would be involved to replace the 550,000 barrels of oil a day that Enbridge specifically would entail. It would require roughly 10 trains of 100 cars every day to make up for that."
Mr. Oliver said Ottawa has taken steps to improve rail safety, including increasing fines for companies that break regulations, and that Transport Minister Lisa Raitt is looking at other measures.
The proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway is a twin pipeline project that would carry crude oil from Alberta to B.C. and condensate in the other direction. It has encountered stiff opposition from First Nations and environmental groups, raising the prospect of producers looking for alternatives to get their product to market.
"Well, I think provided we are very comfortable that rail is safe – and you know, it has been overall – then we wouldn't rule out anything as long as it's safe for Canadians and safe for the environment," Mr. Oliver said. "You know, you don't close down the roads when there is a terrible road accident. You try to make it as safe as it can be."