Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in Whitehorse this week underlining his intense interest in Northern Canada and its economic progress. The Omnitrax transport company, meanwhile, was organizing a test run to haul tank cars of crude oil up the Bay Line to Churchill. Once oil is loaded into ships at Churchill, it is available to the markets of the world.
Mr. Harper can contribute substantially to northern development by focusing his government's attention on transport through Churchill. A winter road is needed to link Churchill to Rankin Inlet and the Bay Line may prove to be a good oil export route for Western Canada.
The Manitoba government likes the road to Rankin but it has grave doubts about shipping oil on the Bay Line. In light of the July 5 oil spill and catastrophic fire at Lac M©gantic, Que., people living along the Bay Line are likely to be apprehensive also. The railbed across the half-frozen muskeg is notoriously unstable and uneven. Churchill has made its name as a place to watch migrating polar bears and frolicking beluga whales, but spilled oil near the port could harm the wildlife and ruin the tourist trade.
So this is a delicate matter. The federal transport authorities that have licensed the oil shipment have no more experience in the matter than the railway. Omnitrax is doing the responsible thing by conducting a test run and discussing its plan at public meetings in the affected communities. But difficult calculations must then be made to evaluate the risks and the benefits, design the facilities and the procedures and decide what to do next. The company should not be asked to do that by itself.
The development of Churchill as an oil-export terminal is a matter of national importance, to give western Canadian oil producers a variety of routes to market. It is important for inventing the techniques of shipping large volumes of oil safely across the northern muskeg and loading it safely into ocean-going ships. Further down the line, the experience with rail shipment may show an oil pipeline to Churchill would be supported by shippers.
Mr. Harper should not stand back and wait for the industry and its critics to form their battle lines and duke it out. He tried that approach with the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline across the mountains to Kitimat, and it has not worked well. He should take an active interest in the Omnitrax project and show everybody involved he recognizes both the opportunity and the difficulties.
The federal government has regulatory power over railroads. It has scientific research agencies. Many of its operating departments have long experience working in the North. Mr. Harper should welcome the enterprising spirit Omnitrax is showing and he should bring the powers and skills of the federal government to bear on the difficult problems the project raises.
Once Omnitrax starts shipping oil through Churchill, a certain amount of spillage is inevitable. Small spills that might be tolerable in Southern Canada may last longer and do more damage in the colder climate of Churchill. The transport and environment authorities need to keep a close eye on this work. They have to ensure spills are properly contained, efficient and cost-effective measures are taken to prevent them and the work is allowed to proceed in a sustainable manner.
The Bay Line has never quite fulfilled its promise as Western Canada's ocean port because it is difficult to use and its shipping season is short. The retreat of Arctic ice and the glut of crude oil in Alberta and Saskatchewan may mark the dawning of a new day for Churchill and its rail line. Omnitrax is taking a sensible first step in that direction.
The government is already aware of the rationale for a winter road to Rankin Inlet. A commitment of funds to choose a route would advance that project. A federal role in the search for technical solutions to oil transport through Churchill would boost public confidence in the Omnitrax project.