The United Nations is preparing to scrutinize the international rules for moving oil by rail, hoping to prevent another disaster like the mass explosions that devastated Lac-Mégantic, Que., last summer.
In the wake of that tragedy, which killed 47 people when a train laden with crude oil derailed and exploded in the heart of the town in July, a UN panel in charge of international hazardous materials regulations said it plans to revisit the rules for moving oil, and how the crude is tested for volatility.
Specifically, the UN panel said it wants to look at whether oil is being tested properly for its potential explosiveness. Before the disaster at Lac-Mégantic, which was followed by similar derailments in Alabama and North Dakota in late 2013, crude oil was tested for boiling point and flashpoint to determine whether it was risky. However, a growing number of experts have said that oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota may be particularly dangerous to ship by rail because of its tendency to produce explosive vapours, which can easily ignite and enlarge the size of a blast.
"Unprocessed crude oil may present unique hazards based on the specific gas content, posing different hazards in transport," the UN panel said in an internal statement, according to Reuters.
The panel wants to examine whether the system of rules for shipping oil, which has been in place for decades, is robust enough to properly measure the risks involved in shipping oil that is lighter in nature and similar to gasoline, such as the crude from the Bakken. The UN process raises the calls for new standards for shipping oil by rail to the highest international level, since the organization is in charge of setting guidelines for the labelling and placarding systems used by railways in shipping hazardous materials.
The move was welcomed by Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, who said similar concerns about vaporization are being looked at in Canada. An investigation by The Globe and Mail in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster showed that oil from the Bakken region is far more volatile than typical forms of crude, since it can give off highly explosive vapours. The Globe investigation prompted the government to introduce safety measures that will be rolled out this summer, such as requiring better emergency response procedures for oil shipments. The government is now also looking at the vaporization process closely as a result.
"We're really focused on the transportation of dangerous goods in the country, unfortunately as a result of what happened in Lac-Mégantic," Ms. Raitt said in Toronto after a speech to a conference hosted by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers on Friday. "It's important to make sure that when we move these goods … we need to do it safely. And it makes sense that we take a look at our overall structure."
Canada's Transportation Safety Board called on the government recently to revamp its safety procedures for shipping oil, and Ms. Raitt's department has until April 23 to respond. Ms. Raitt said the department is on track to implement the recommendations the TSB made, including creating Emergency Response Assistance Plans, or ERAPs, for moving crude oil. The emergency plans, which include special equipment and procedures for dealing with potential accidents, were identified by The Globe's investigation as a key missing element in the government's existing policies.
"We'll be addressing that," Ms. Raitt said. "Our country suffered a great tragedy in Lac-Mégantic and we have to be mindful that we need to respond to that, and ensure that Canadians are protected and that they're safe."
The UN panel said it was asked by experts in Canada and the United States to take a closer look at the international rules for shipping crude in light of the three major explosions that have taken place since the summer in both countries. The panel did not say which experts made the request. However, the problem of oil vaporizing easily is one that concerns many oil and rail industry officials, since rail cars can become over-pressurized when the crude is particularly volatile.