The coincidence last week was striking. As Winnipeggers joined a Canadawide protest against a planned pipeline, 31 rail cars carrying crude oil derailed and burst into flames in rural Saskatchewan.
The juxtaposition of the anti-pipeline demonstrations and yet another train crash gave vivid focus to the complex reality of transporting crude oil and natural gas: these dangerous but necessary fossil fuels have to be moved somehow, and it’s safer to move them by pipelines than rail cars.
The issue is particularly concerning to Winnipeg because, thanks partly to public resistance to building new pipelines, an increased number of rail cars that contain oil and gas rolls through this city, close to residential areas and past motorists who are lined up behind rail-crossing arms.
That’s why many Winnipeggers paid grim attention to last Thursday’s derailment that sent a cloud of black smoke high into the air near Guernsey, Sask., about 115 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon. No one died this time. Thankfully, it wasn’t a repeat of the 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que., when runaway rail cars filled with crude oil exploded, killing 47 people.
But it was by fortunate geographic chance, not by good planning, that the derailment happened in a relatively unpopulated stretch of Prairie track as opposed to a crowded urban centre.
According to figures from the National Energy Board, the volume of oil and gas moved by rail has soared. In the years since Lac-Mégantic, the number of rail cars carrying oil across Canada has quadrupled, and a growing number of them roll through Winnipeg because of its location as a historical rail-transportation hub.
At the same time, the number of rail accidents involving dangerous goods also doubled in Canada in 2018, the latest year for which numbers are available. There were 25 railway accidents involving dangerous goods — defined as flammable or corrosive substances that either exploded or leaked — including two in Manitoba.
The reason oil and gas companies use rail cars for transport is that current pipelines are full to capacity. The development of pipelines — Trans Mountain, Keystone XL and Enbridge’s Line 3 — has been stalled by public opposition, lawsuits and protracted negotiations with First Nations.
The current protests against a natural-gas pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory in British Columbia should not necessarily be regarded as a sweeping condemnation of pipelines. Most of the protesters — including hundreds in Winnipeg who have twice blocked traffic on Portage Avenue — are motivated by what they see as a violation of Indigenous rights; although Coastal GasLink has signed agreements with all 20 elected First Nations councils along the 670-kilometre pipeline’s path, the Wet’suwet’en hereditary clan chiefs, who are leaders under the traditional form of governance, haven’t consented.
It is possible to believe that Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs must approve any pipeline crossing their land, but also heed the reliable evidence that pipelines are the best choice when it comes to transporting gas and oil.
Pipelines aren’t perfect. They scar pristine landscape and disrupt animal habitat. Pipeline leaks in wilderness areas can be hard to find and clean up.
But until Canada can wean itself off fossil fuels and find cleaner energy sources for such essentials as running engines and heating buildings, the question is not whether oil and gas should be transported, but what method of transportation is the least problematic.
The view from Winnipeg, a city of nearly 780,000 where increasing numbers of rail cars full of highly combustible substances creak through densely populated areas, is that pipelines are the preferred option.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.