Only a few short months ago, the rush to move crude oil onto rail cars in North America was described in The Globe and Mail as a "giddy procession of profit". No one is laughing any more.
Saturday's derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in which 73 rail cars loaded with highly flammable cargo thought to be heavy crude oil careened out of control and exploded destroying a small town and resulting in a horrific loss of life, has already been deployed as a slam-dunk argument in favour of pipeline expansion and the expedited approval of the Keystone XL.
This is a rush to judgement.
Yes, pipelines represent a safer alternative to carrying crude oil by road and rail. But the pipelines are jammed, and production in the oil sands is far outpacing the capacity of our national energy infrastructure. Blame for the delay in getting the necessary conduits in place cannot rest on the shoulders of the 'radical' environmentalists and First Nations that federal ministers would point to. In fact, the oil producers have not put a priority on striking fair deals with bands whose territories they wish to cross; they have not put forward credible spill prevention and response plans; and they have not made a genuine effort to confront the problem of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change – a major concern of most Canadians. This failure, combined with Ottawa's adversarial stance and unwillingness to require any of these basic commitments from the oil patch, means that oil has been flooding on to rail cars over the past year, despite the fact that transporting it by pipeline is more cost-effective and safer.
The federal government itself created the conditions under which rail companies could cash in on the log-jam. As we are learning with horror, the rail companies did so haphazardly: The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) left 73 rail cars loaded with combustible crude oil unattended in outdated containers to roll down tracks in dire need of repair and update, with deadly consequences. And there is no reason for us to believe that they alone have acted so irresponsibly.
Early indications are that the oil being transported through Lac-Mégantic originated in the Bakken region of North Dakota and not Alberta. But this did not stop commentators from employing this disaster to advocate, as The Globe and Mail's editorial pages did on Monday, for the expedited approval of the Keystone XL, and the proposed west-east pipeline routes that environmentalists fear will inevitably fuel further expansion in the oil sands.
Sensible resource development policy, at minimum, would moderate the pace of development in the oil sands until the government puts a reasonable oil infrastructure strategy in place. Donald Barry, professor of political science at the University of Calgary, has been arguing for some time that the shortage in pipeline capacity should slow the pace of tar sands development, allowing industry more time to get things right, and allowing the government to strengthen regulations.
In other words, "responsible" resource development policy would include deliberation on a national plan to move the resources. That plan would ideally weigh the risks associated with different infrastructure choices and routes to various communities across the country, as well as the benefits. "Responsible" resource development would include appropriate regulations, government inspections and tough sanctions to ensure industry compliance. Otherwise, we are playing fast and loose with the safety and security of all those communities that lie between the energy resources and the "markets" we are so eager to reach.
Dayna Nadine Scott is an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School and at the York University Faculty of Environmental Studies.