Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said Thursday a plan by Omnitrax Canada to ship crude oil to Churchill hasn't yet landed on her desk, so she hasn't made a decision about the controversial proposal.
It's unlikely she ever will. Omnitrax says it already has all the necessary approvals in place to begin shipping oil through northern Manitoba this summer and says it doesn't require the minister's blessing.
That leaves First Nations, local environmental activists and the province of Manitoba with little regulatory leverage to stop what they fear is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.
'It's not just always about the economy. I can't believe I said that as a Conservative. But it's not always about the economy'
"Just having a minimum regulatory framework is really not acceptable," Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said Thursday.
In an effort to diversify its commodities and keep the Port of Churchill viable, Omnitrax hopes to begin shipping light crude oil over the Hudson Bay Railway this August, a test run that could eventually result in 3.3 million barrels of oil shipped through the north per year.
"The Port of Churchill has the necessary environmental permit to handle crude oil through the port, and the Hudson Bay Railway is in compliance with the safety regulations currently in place to continue to maintain safe operations," company president Merv Tweed said in a statement.
Raitt, who was in Winnipeg Thursday, said she met with some First Nations chiefs last fall to hear their concerns and has spoken with the Selinger government, which opposes Omnitrax's plan.
Because railways and shipping are federally regulated, Manitoba has virtually no power to stop crude-oil shipments down the rail line and from the port. Instead, the province has been pressuring Omnitrax to transport other commodities besides crude oil.
Ashton said he's concerned Omnitrax has not conducted any environmental impact assessments, and he said Transport Canada's oversight of dangerous goods on rail lines has been inadequate.
He said rigorous regulation is especially important for the Bay line because it's built on notoriously unstable terrain and covers a unique and pristine region of the province.
Earlier this week, speaking to business leaders in Washington, D.C., Raitt highlighted environmental concerns when she dampened hopes oil could soon be shipped through the Arctic's Northwest Passage. She said navigation challenges, huge insurance bills and a fear of oil spills are big barriers to shipping crude through the Arctic, even if receding ice makes the famed passage a viable shipping route.
"I can tell you one oil spill or accident in the Arctic is one visual you do not want to have in this world at all," Raitt said. "It's not just always about the economy. I can't believe I said that as a Conservative. But it's not always about the economy. You've got to balance it out with what's happening in terms of safety and the environment, too."
Local environmental groups took those words as a signal Raitt might veto Omnitrax's plan as too dangerous to the northern ecosystem and Hudson Bay.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, she raised few concerns about the Omnitrax plan and said Ottawa has been working to prevent spills and create a world-class oil-tanker safety system that includes inspections and incident response.
"Transport Canada's role, on a technical basis, is to ensure that rail line is appropriate, it can handle the oil, that all the safety measures are in place," Raitt said.
"All those things are how Transport Canada gets involved, not on a policy position on whether (oil) goes, but making sure that, from a safety point of view and a regulatory point of view, that (Omnitrax) is qualified, capable and competent."
-- with files from The Canadian Press