A horrific disaster, such as the one that hit Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 6, was foreseeable. In all likelihood, it could have been averted, if pipeline capacity in North America had been allowed to expand, proportionately to the increase of oil and gas production in the continent.
The rigid opposition to pipelines on the part of many environmentalists – and especially their political influence on President Barack Obama over the Keystone XL pipeline – has been a large factor in the industry's resort to the railways. The trend has been very clear since 2009.
Last May, the International Energy Agency reported that shipping of crude by rail is more expensive than by pipe, but it has some advantages, including "few regulatory hurdles" – in hindsight, an ominous observation. Over the course of eight years, the average number of "incidents" per 10 million barrels of oil shipped by railway was six times higher than the number of pipeline mishaps, according to the IEA. The amount of oil spilled in a typical event is usually larger with pipelines – but Lac-Mégantic shows the catastrophic potential of railways.
The federal government ignored the fact that more movement of oil by railroads – a federal responsibility under the Constitution – required more regulation and more inspectors. In particular, there was no specific requirement for emergency preparedness for crude-oil disasters, or for information about what kind of oil emergency responders might be facing. The system doesn't even treat crude oil as a particularly dangerous substance.
As The Globe reported on Monday, some U.S. government officials at least recognized the greater risk from the railway shipment of high concentrations of hazardous materials, though Americans authorities were no more active in doing anything about it.
Increased pipeline capacity can't be conjured into reality by waving a magic wand. A lot of oil is going to be moving by rail, and for years to come. It's a potentially dangerous cargo, and Ottawa must regulate it as such.