Marcy Markusa: Oil on our minds

In light of the rail disaster that devastated Lac-Mégantic, Que., Marcy Markusa of CBC's Information Radio explores the concerns Manitobans have about transporting oil by train.
Work continues on Friday at the site in Lac-Megantic, Que., of a train derailment that ignited tanker cars carrying crude oil. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Like most Canadians, I watched the news stories last weekend about the disaster in Quebec with disbelief.

The images of those rail cars full of oil, barrelling down the hill into the sleepy little town of Lac-Mégantic were horrible.

My initial reaction was actually not to question whether or not it could happen here, only because I generally adopt the point of view that most things can happen anywhere given the right set of circumstances.

This week, however, we have been examining those circumstances in detail. We started to think about ways to improve safety standards to prevent an accident like the one Lac-Mégantic in Manitoba.

It's mainly because we are moving more a lot more oil.

In all of the coverage that I've been directly involved with following the incident, one statistic really stands out.

The Canadian Railway Association estimates that in 2009, about 500 carloads of oil passed over Canada's tracks. This year, that number is expected to reach 140,000 car loads.

The first time I read that figure, I thought it was a typo. It is not.

Leaders in communities across the province are expressing concern and taking a much closer look at all of the hazardous materials that move through their areas.

The emergency co-ordinator for the City of Steinbach wants to explore having trucks with hazardous materials re-routed around the city.

The mayor of nearby St. Anne says an accident would wipe his town off the map, and he wants to at least know what materials are in the rail cars that run down the tracks daily so he can assess the danger.

Here in Winnipeg, residents in River Heights learned a lesson about trying to find out what is in their backyards when huge silos were placed on an adjacent railway property.

They wanted the silos moved, but learned that the companies don't have to follow municipal rules.

And then there is what happened in St. Boniface. The explosion last fall at a fuel plant company was the largest that our city has seen in 25 years.

But despite that massive fireball in the sky, officials were also aware that it could have been an even larger disaster.

At the time, firefighters feared that fuel stored in two nearby rail tank cars would explode. It didn't happen.

Despite the fact that we are a rail city, Barry Prentice, a professor with the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba, says what happened in Quebec is very unlikely to happen on our rail lines.

Here's what he told CBC News this week:

"The speeds are very controlled, it's a major main line under tremendous supervision, and this was a very rare and unusual circumstance for a runaway train," he said.

"The chances of something like that happening in Winnipeg — notwithstanding the fact we have no hills — is very, very small."

Prentice, however, also pointed to the huge increase in the amount of oil that is going across the country and suggested that it can't be ignored.

He said, "We have this large oil reserve in the Bakken field in North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba where there's no pipeline serving that area. So in order to extract the oil — which happens very fast because of the fracking industry — to get to market, they use the rail lines, and it works out very economically for them."

Prentice thinks it may be time for government to consider re-routing rail lines outside of towns and cities.

So what is our provincial government doing?   Steve Ashton, the minister responsible for Emergency Measures in Manitoba spoke with CBC News this week as well.

He said they don't have specific information about what moves through Manitoba because railway companies fall under federal jurisdiction, but tracking that information is something he would like to see improved.

Ashton also said Brandon has a hazardous goods route so trucks don't go right through the city hauling dangerous materials.

As well, he noted that Winnipeg has one of only four urban search and rescue teams in the country.

Ashton said he feels our ability to respond to an event like the disaster in Lac-Mégantic is solid. But beyond that, he said he will await the review of what happened in Quebec.

You might be wondering after reading all of this about one of the elephants in the room.

What is the safest way to transport oil?

A debate has now started in our country about railway versus pipelines for transporting oil, but the reality is that even if all current pipeline projects are approved in Canada, national oil production will exceed pipeline capacity by 1 million barrels a day by 2025, and that oil needs a way of reaching the coasts.

So we are back where this blog entry began: with so much oil that we can't even keep up with moving it.

In fact, before the disaster, this may have been compiled as a good news economic story about oil production in Canada.

But there is no "before the disaster."

There is only what will happen next, as Canadians who live near the tracks will go to bed tonight hearing the train whistles just a little differently.