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Open-mind approach best on oil

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THE PAS -- Omnitrax's plan to haul oil by rail across northern Manitoba has run full steam into serious safety fears.

The concerns have been fuelled largely by derailments of oil-tanker trains in Lac-Mégantic, Que., and, more recently, Gainford, Alta.

But even without such high-profile disasters, the Omnitrax proposal was destined to face stiff opposition from familiar sources.

Indeed, in northern Manitoba, this is merely the latest pitting of economic gain against First Nations and environmentalist opposition.

This year alone, Hudbay and the province have faced pressure to kill the Reed and Lalor mines now in early production outside Snow Lake.

First Nations assert the mines are illegally on their territory, while environmentalists argue Reed is an ecological nightmare.

Though the aboriginal and environmental lobbies are NDP bedfellows, the province has unabashedly given its full blessing to both mines.

But now, in at least a partial sop to those allies, the NDP is against the Omnitrax plan.

Does that matter? Maybe not, since railways fall under federal regulatory domain. (At last report Transport Canada simply said Omnitrax has to meet all safety rules vis--vis petroleum products).

Still, opposition from the Manitoba government is bound to influence Ottawa's final decision. So will the Gainford derailment of five days ago, a calamity that illustrated in fiery detail that Lac-Mégantic was no one-off.

How likely is it the Conservative government, in full risk-reduction mode, will green-light a plan that goes against provincial wishes, makes it responsible should something go awry in the sensitive northern ecosystem and largely benefits a remote opposition riding it will never win?

Granted, there are valid reasons to question a plan that would ship up to 3.3 million barrels of Alberta crude from The Pas to the Port of Churchill each year beginning in 2015.

Although tens of millions of dollars have gone into upgrading northern Manitoba's railway, there are fears within the NDP and elsewhere the network is not ready for this level of traffic.

Concerns are also coming from Keewatin Tribal Council Grand Chief Irvin Sinclair, who told The Canadian Press just one derailment or oil spill could ruin the livelihood of generations who still live off the land.

Eric Reder of the Wilderness Committee environmental group, no stranger to fighting industry in northern Manitoba, has said the Omnitrax plan would spell trouble for Churchill's ecotourism industry. But all of that is predicated on the possibility of a derailment. How likely is that?

According to Omnitrax, petroleum products have been safely shipped to Churchill for more than 50 years. Moreover, the company says it meets or exceeds all regulations.

How common are derailments on the Hudson Bay Railway, consisting mostly of the stretch between The Pas and Churchill? Government stats show an annual average of 5.3 derailments on the line. Not all derailments are created equal. Some are so minor you literally have to be a few feet away to discern something is amiss. Others get pretty messy, with toppled cars and splintered rail ties.

Part of what makes debate over the Omnitrax proposal so challenging is that its economic benefits are unclear. No one has attached a specific jobs figure to it.

We know the Port of Churchill, no longer the beneficiary of a monopolistic Canadian Wheat Board, could use extra business. Last year saw the seaport ship its lowest volume of grain products since 2004, according to The Western Producer.

In The Pas, headquarters of Omnitrax's Manitoba division, Mayor Alan McLauchlan is favourable, saying the plan "would provide employment opportunities and enhance economic development in the region."

The catch-all argument against the increasingly common practice of rail-shipped oil is that train derailments are always possible.

But there's a big difference between arguing "something bad can happen" versus "something bad is more likely to happen here for a specific reason."

Reasonable caution, not the hysterics often associated with protests against all things oil, is warranted. But so is open-mindedness on a strategy that could have many positive implications for a job-needy North.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

jonathon_naylor@ hotmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 24, 2013 A13

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