Like so many in Canada and abroad, I have been deeply saddened by the horrible news of Saturday's tragic train accident, oil spill and explosion in Lac-Mégantic. It is already known to have claimed 13 lives and the official death toll is expected to rise sharply.
From the point of view of human casualties, what happened in Lac-Mégantic is in a category of its own. The last major train accident in Quebec took place 14 years ago when one train collided with another that had derailed. Two CN employees were killed.
I was shocked on Saturday to see that, only a few hours after the tragic incident in Lac-Mégantic, pipeline cheerleaders were already hard at work.
Promoters of the TransCanada Keystone XL and the Enbridge Line 9B pipeline-reversal project were quick to assert that pipelines are safer than trains, and that if all of the pipeline projects that are currently on the table had already been approved that the accident in Lac Mégantic could have been avoided. Some even went so far as to blame environmental organizations for this accident.
Of course, what happened in Lac-Mégantic will raise issues around the safety of transporting hydrocarbons, and rightly so.
Why did federal regulators allow the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway to use trains that the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has deemed to have a "high incidence of tank failures during accidents" and the Canadian Transportation Safety Board has said are prone "to release product at derailment and impact?"
The federal government's own safety officials said nine years ago that 80 per cent of the rail tanker fleet in Canada is unsafe for carrying oil.
But it's not a question of trains versus pipelines, but why we need more of either option given North American oil demand is declining. Pipeline proponents are offering us a false choice. We don't need to build more infrastructure to ship dangerous crude oil across the continent.
As for the oil already being moved around the continent, we need to ask who's in the driver's seat when it comes to safety: the federal government or the rail industry? Neither is taking responsibility for this tragic event.
And what is true of oil being transported by train certainly seems to apply to pipelines as well.
According to a study released last April by the International Energy Agency, trains experience more oil spills than pipelines, but pipelines spill more oil overall, about three times as much volume as trains. Between 2006 and 2012, 28 millions litres of oil spilled in Alberta alone from pipelines.
Enbridge is seeking permission from the National Energy Board to reverse the flow of oil in the section of its Line 9 pipeline that extends from Montreal to North Westover, Ont.,o and to use it to transport crude oil from Alberta's oil sands. That company spilled an average of 1.9 million litres of oil per year between 2007 and 2011.
The Lac-Mégantic spill is estimated to be 100,000 litres.
Opposition to pipelines is not confined to environmental groups. Fourteen Quebec municipalities have written to the Quebec government to ask for an independent environmental assessment and public hearings on Enbridge's Line 9B reversal project. The city of Montreal has asked the National Energy Board to explain the impact a pipeline spill would have on its fresh water reserves, which provide more than two million people with drinking water.
Over the last two years, we have witnessed a severe attack on our environmental laws and regulations in Canada, especially when it comes to oil projects. The Harper government has done this under the guise of cutting "red tape." Perhaps we are starting to see the signs of what some would call self-regulation by industry.
Beyond the pipelines-versus-trains debate, I believe that until we start tackling our addiction to oil, we are going to have to accept the fact that there is oil being transported on our roads, rails and seaways, as well as by pipeline. All options come with risks. The more we continue to depend on oil, the more catastrophes like Lac-Mégantic are waiting to happen.
Steven Guilbeault is a co-founder and deputy director of the Equiterre, which promotes concrete solutions to promote human and environmental health.