If not pipelines to the Pacific, how about a rail line to Alaska?

Access to tidewater is a perennial problem for Alberta's oil and gas producers. They often pitch safety as an advantage to their much-maligned pipeline products, but this week a new report says rail would be an efficient — and safe — way to get product to the shores...of Alaska.
Would train be a better option for shipping bitumen than pipeline? (Matthew Brown/Associated Press)

Building pipelines from the Alberta oilsands to the Pacific coast is not easy.

But now there's a new idea from a transportation policy think-tank affiliated with the University of Calgary. The Van Horne Institute says it would be possible and efficient to take bitumen by rail from Fort McMurray to Alaska.

The theoretical route would start in northern Alberta, cut across the northeast corner of British Columbia, run through Yukon, and arrive at Delta Junction in Alaska, where bitumen would be piped to Valdez for export on tankers.

Peter Wallis, President and CEO of the Van Horne Institute, says a rail line would be a fast way to move bitumen to the coast.

In this particular project, it would take 42 hours to move the bitumen by rail from Fort McMurray to Delta Junction. Then it goes into a pipeline, and pipelines are obviously slower than rail. So... it's really quite efficient.- Peter Wallis, Van Horne Institute

As for safety, Wallis draws a distinction between a train carrying raw bitumen, and a train carrying other products, such as Bakken crude oil, which was carried in the train which caused the Lac-Mégantic disaster. 

Let me quickly make the differentiation between the product that was in Lac-Mégantic and bitumen. Bitumen is slow and molasses, its flammability  is significantly less than what was carried in those cars at Lac-Mégantic.- Peter Wallis, Van Horne Institute

While a concrete plan for a rail line is a long way off, Wallis says this is a first step, and future development would require private-sector partners, and a full feasibility study.

To listen to the full interview, click the button at the top of this page.


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