NDP Government and Oil Rail Shipment to Churchill

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NDP Government and Oil Rail Shipment to Churchill

On December 18th, The Wilderness Committee announced that it wants the Manitoba NDP provincial government to pass provincial legislation against the rail shipment of oil to Churchill. 

OmniTrax, which owns the railway to Hudson Bay Railway (HBR) and the Port of Churchill, wants to ship 3.3 million barrels per year by means of the HBR to Churchill. It plans a trial shipment of 330,000 barrels of Albertan oil in July. 

The Wilderness Committee's Eric Reder, the environmental group’s campaign director in Manitoba, said 

the federal government may have jurisdiction, but the Lac Megantic accident, which killed 47 people in Quebec last year, might shift the balance of legislative authority when it comes to shipping oil. ...

He said shipping oil through Churchill is an outlandish concept for a long list of reasons.

The community’s economy depends heavily on tourists who visit the community to see polar bears. However, Reder said an expanded petroleum industry would spew additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which warms the Arctic Ocean and puts polar bears at risk.

“Far and away the biggest concern (with shipping oil to Churchill) is that we would build more fossil fuel infrastructure, which keeps us on a path of running our country and civilization for 10 years longer than we need to on oil,” he said.

“It can’t be said too strongly how insane the plan is to take great risk to increase fossil fuel extraction.”

As well, Reder said the Hudson Bay rail line is unsuitable for oil shipments. He traveled to Churchill by rail in the fall, and there were multiple derailments on the track or at the port during his stay.

“Four days of travel and four accidents on that line,” he said.

“People tell you how bad this track is. You can see how bad this track is. It’s obvious why there are problems.”

He said there is also the risk of an oil spill in Hudson Bay, which would be nearly impossible to clean up.

Skimmer ships, booms and dispersants are used to contain and mitigate oil spills in warmer climates, but those maritime resources don’t exist on Hudson Bay. Even if they were in place, he added, it’s unlikely such strategies would work.

“Skimmer ships don’t work because they don’t work in waves and they don’t work on ice,” he said.

“We can’t handle a spill up there.”


Merv Tweed resigned as Con MP for Brandon-Souris in order to take over as President of OmniTrax Canda in September, 2013, showing how closely linked the Harper government is to this project. 

Former Liberal Cabinet Minister Lloyd Axworthy has heartily endorsed Tweed's taking over of OmniTrax and looks forward to working closely with him, suggesting where the Libs are likely to stand on this issue.



Lending further urgency to demanding a ban on oil shipment to Churchill is the December 30th oil rail explosion near Casselton, North Dakota, the November 90-car derailment in Alabama that burst into flames and the October derailment near Gainford Alberta, resulting in evacuations of communities and the fire, ambulance, police and environmental costs being paid for by the taxpayer.  On TV, the mayor of Casselton said it is not a matter of if these kinds of accidents will occur but when. 

 Residents of a small town in North Dakota were urged to evacuate after a BNSF train carrying crude oil collided with another train on Monday, setting off a series of explosions and fires, the latest in a string of incidents that have raised alarms over growing oil-by-rail traffic.

Local residents heard five powerful explosions just a mile outside of the small town of Casselton after a westbound 112-car train carrying soybeans derailed. An eastbound 106-car train hauling crude oil ran into it just after 2 p.m. CST (2000 GMT), local officials said. There were no injuries in the collision that left 21 rail cars on fire, according to BNSF. ...

Residents within 5 miles (8 km) of Casselton were urged to evacuate to avoid contact with the smoke. Residents within 10 miles were asked to remain indoors.

Casselton resident Jolie Fiedler and her husband dropped off their two dogs with relatives and headed to a shelter.

"It's better safe than sorry - just get out of town and dodge the smoke, I guess," she said. "I'm hoping that I can go home tomorrow, but who knows."

Casselton City Auditor Sheila Klevgard said crews are pushing snow to contain the oil before it reaches a nearby creek.

Half of the oil cars have been separated from the train, but another 56 cars remain in danger, said Cecily Fong, the public information officer with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services. The collision destroyed both engines on the oil train. Both trains were operated by BNSF Railway Co, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

The incident will likely stoke concerns about the safety of shipping increasing volumes of crude oil by rail, a trend that emerged from the unexpected burst of shale oil production out of North Dakota's Bakken fields. Over two-thirds of the state's oil production is currently shipped by rail. ...

The derailment occurred about a mile west of Casselton, a town of about 2,300 just west of Fargo, between an ethanol plant and the Casselton Reservoir, Fong said....

North Dakota is home to a raging shale oil boom that produced nearly 950,000 barrels of oil a day in October. It is also a major grain producer and long accustomed to a high volume of rail traffic.

But shipments of oil have surged lately, most of it the light, sweet Bakken variety that experts say is particularly flammable. ...

This summer, a runaway oil train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. The incident fueled a drive for tougher standards for such shipments, including potentially costly retrofits to improve the safety of tank cars that regulators have cited as prone to puncture.

In early November, two dozen cars on another 90-car oil train derailed in rural Alabama, erupting into flames that took several days to fully extinguish.

The Association of American Railroads recently proposed costly fixes to older tank cars that do not meet its latest standards but continue to carry hazardous fuels such as oil. The fixes include protective steel jackets, thermal protection and pressure relief valves, which could cost billions of dollars. Oil shippers, likely to be saddled with the costs of retrofits, oppose some of the changes proposed by the association.



Nevertheless, federal Transport Minsiter Lisa Riatt assured us after the Lac Megantic and Gainford accidents that, despite derailments, rail transport of oil is safe. It's time for the NDP to get more forceful on this issue. 

 A train carrying propane and crude that crashed in the hamlet of Gainford, Alta., early Saturday morning is once again raising questions about the safety of moving oil by rail in Canada, particularly in the wake of July’s fatal rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que. No one was hurt in Gainford, but it was Canadian National Railway Co.’s third notable derailment in the past month involving hazardous materials, and it caused explosions and fire on both sides of a four-line highway. ...

Alberta’s oil industry is a key reason rail has become a popular shipping method. As oil-sands production climbs, the amount of available space on North America’s pipeline network declines. The province’s energy industry could stall if shipping by rail came off the table.

“The system is safe,” Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said in an interview Saturday. “Although we will see derailments, we’ve never seen an accident or an incident like Lac-Mégantic, that’s for sure. But the system is safe.







Adding further concerns about the railway to Churchill is the number of accidents that have occurred along this route and OmniTrax's statements, that despite this, the railway is safe for the shipment of oil.

 Figures from the Transportation Safety Board of Canada show there have been 63 accidents on the Hudson Bay rail line between 2003 and 2012. All but 10 were derailments. ...

But First Nations, who still rely on the wilderness for their living, are concerned moving crude oil through their traditional territory will threaten their way of life.

Grand Chief Irvin Sinclair, with the Keewatin Tribal Council, said people still hunt and trap on the land. One derailment or spill is all it would take to destroy the livelihood of generations, Mr. Sinclair said.

“There goes the wildlife,” he said. “There goes a way of life for everybody if something drastic happens. It would be devastating to the environment.”




Unfortunately, in September, during the following interview NDP Manitoba Transportation Minister, Steve Ashton, simply says he is opposed to Omnitrax current proposal to ship oil by rail to Churchill and asks them "to go back to the drawing board" to develop a new plan and would not say whether the government would oppose a new plan. While the railway which also goes through Saskatchewan is under federal jurisdiction, a provincial government can creatively act to make it very difficult for a corporation to work within its jurisdiction. 





 At a news teleconference in Winnipeg after the throne speech, Manitoba NDP Minister of Infrastructure and Transportation Steve Ashton said he envisions the new Churchill transportation authority to play a role similar to CentrePort Canada, under development in Winnipeg, to play a role both in terms of promotion and facilities.  

 Some legislative changes will be required to establish the new Churchill transportation authority, Ashton said, noting its creation was recommended in the final 60-page report last January of the Federal-Provincial Task Force on the Future of Churchill. ...

If you haven't heard of the Federal-Provincial Task Force on the Future of Churchill don't be surprised. As they note in their final report, Prime Minister Stephen Harper directed them to "maintain a low public profile and consultation approach." The task force consulted 60 individuals. That's right – 60. And among the "opportunities" identified by the joint Canada-Manitoba task force as possible over the next five years: "Ship light sweet crude oil by rail to Churchill for export from areas without sufficient pipeline capacity through private sector partnerships with east-coast refiners and oil producers. This opportunity is subject to fully addressing all potential environmental risks to sensitive Arctic ecosystems."

Beginning next July, OmniTRAX, a Denver-based short line railroad, hopes to transport 3.3 million barrels of crude oil annually on its Canadian subsidiary Hudson Bay Railway line from The Pas northeast through Thompson Junction and onto Churchill. Hudson Bay Railway was created in 1997 by OmniTRAX, the same year it took over operation of the Port of Churchill. OmniTRAX bought the Port of Churchill, which opened in 1931, when it acquired it from Canada Ports Corporation, for a token $10 soon after buying the rail line from CN in 1997 for $11 million.





Considering that Auditor General Michael Ferguson has warned that there are considerable risks involved in oil transport by rail.

 Opponents of a proposal to ship crude oil through the Port of Churchill are echoing concerns raised by Canada's auditor general this week about rail safety in general.

While Transport Canada made progress in addressing many of the recommendations from a Railway Safety Act review, the audit report found that a number of long-standing and important safety issues remain.

There were issues of "trespassing, grade crossings, concerns about the environment, the collection of data on safety performance from federal railways, and the implementation and oversight of safety management systems," the report found.

The report's findings were encouraging to critics of the OmniTrax oil shipment plan, like Paul Ratson of Nature 1st, an eco-tourism company in Churchill.

"There is a certain amount of comfort when it is coming from high levels in the government like the auditor general," Ratson told CBC News on Tuesday.

"But if every single person in this town stood up and said, 'No, we don't want that here,' we don't have the power here to stop it."



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