Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mr. Ashton plays politics on Omnitrax

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Omintrax Canada was planning to move a relatively modest shipment of Alberta crude oil through northern Manitoba to the Port of Churchill next month in a test run for a much larger enterprise that could see 3.3 million gallons of the black gold loaded onto ships every year.

It's a bold plan that could help expand Churchill's role as an Arctic gateway, as well as diversifying the avenues for transporting western goods to markets in Eastern Canada, Europe and beyond.

But it's also fraught with potential perils because oil is a controversial commodity that would be moving through a sensitive ecosystem. Aboriginal groups, for example, are concerned about the impact of spills on traditional lands, but there are also great economic benefits if reasonable concerns can be addressed.

That's why it was important for everyone to proceed in a prudent and cautious way in developing a plan for expanding Omnitrax's northern route. Enter Manitoba Transportation Minister Steve Ashton, who represents the northern riding of Thompson.

Mr. Ashton should be leading a sensible discussion on what must happen to make the oil-shipment plan acceptable to Manitobans in general and northerners in particular. That assumes, of course, there is a palatable solution, which doesn't sound like an outlandish hypothesis.

Oil, after all, is already shipped all over the continent by rail, truck and pipeline, and far more dangerous goods have moved regularly on the line for decades.

But instead of striking a statesmanlike pose and trying to balance the competing interests and concerns, Mr. Ashton responded like a blunt instrument.

He told the Globe and Mail the rail company's plans are too risky for the environment and the safety of northern residents. The Manitoba government, he said, simply can't support the project.

To be fair, he also urged Omnitrax to "go back to the drawing board on this," which at least holds out some hope the minister can change his mind.

Of course, that's politics. Oppose an idea in one breath, but leave open the door in the next. It's also politics in that Mr. Ashton has no regulatory authority over the rail line, so he can curry political favour without being held responsible for a decision.

The Wilderness Committee interpreted Mr. Ashton's comments as a rejection of Omnitrax's plans and issued a statement Friday congratulating the Selinger government for offering "exactly the response we were hoping for." As far as they are concerned, the plan is dead.

The minister also cited the disaster at Lac-M©gantic, where 47 people were killed after a train carrying oil crashed and exploded, as a reason to be concerned about Omnitrax's plans.

Transport Canada, however, is already studying how to increase safety in the shipment of hazardous goods. Before the Quebec disaster, the government had called for tanker cars to be built to stricter standards, but there is still a need for tighter safety rules and stiffer penalties.

Omnitrax says its northern tracks don't need upgrades to carry oil and the idea of shipping oil is perfectly safe, but it will have to convince Manitobans they have nothing to worry about. The company is holding public consultations on its plan and it has even postponed its planned test run for now.

The company requires federal approval for its business plan, but provincial opposition could be a problem, even though railways are federally regulated.

Premier Greg Selinger has been more circumspect in his comments, saying only that the Quebec disaster has raised the bar for safety and Omnitrax will have to demonstrate it meets the highest safety standards.

Northern development is important to Manitoba and to the people who live in the north, but the province will be left in the cold if ministers such as Mr. Ashton decide constituency politics is more important than reasoned debate.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 A16

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