On July 6, the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was shattered by one of Canada's worst industrial and rail disasters, when a train carrying crude oil derailed and cars exploded, killing at least 15 people, with close to 40 others not yet accounted for, and spilling oil into the Chaudière River. Our thoughts at the David Suzuki Foundation are with the people of Lac-Mégantic as they grapple with this terrible tragedy. We are just starting to come to terms with the implications of the devastation for the town and for the wider political discussion now taking place.
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Because the train was carrying crude oil, the incident has been woven into highly charged debate on fossil fuels, exports and infrastructure. People need time to recover and grieve, and we also need to understand how it happened so we can prevent such an incident from occurring again. But, inevitably, the conversation is turning to the broader context of oil, energy, pipelines and politics.
We must remember that this was a derailment, and while the scale of the disaster was amplified because of the contents of the train cars and the circumstances of the derailment, trains go off the rails from time to time, and crude oil is only one of many potentially dangerous cargoes that pass through populated areas. An immediate priority will be to figure out how the system failed and why trains with such dangerous payloads are moving through towns and cities.
We also need to determine what role federal, provincial and municipal governments play in prioritizing safety. Had unsafe practices been allowed to persist under inadequate regulatory oversight? Should rail cars carrying dangerous materials be built to better standards? People in communities across Canada have the right to feel assured that regulatory agencies are acting in their best interests and are working to improve oversight, planning and practices to minimize risk.
As for the broader context, many people have argued this disaster shows the need for pipeline expansion. It's true that rail shipment of oil has increased dramatically in Canada, from 500 carloads in 2009 to 14,000 this year, according to Railway Association of Canada. But this is the wrong starting point for discussion. This disaster shows that transporting oil is dangerous by any means.
With a growing demand for fossil fuels, and increasing efforts to exploit and sell it as quickly as possible, we are now extracting oil from more difficult sources and transporting it over greater distances to a broader network. From environmentally devastating pipeline spills to horrendous tragedies like that in Lac-Mégantic, not to mention climate change, the likelihood of fossil fuel damage will continue to increase if we don't curb our voracious appetite to consume and facilitate the supply of that oil. There is really only one certain way to reduce the risk of oil transportation, and that's to produce and consume less of it.
At the David Suzuki Foundation, we believe we can build healthier communities that are less dependent on oil and powered by cleaner and safer sources of energy that also help safeguard our climate. We know it will be a major challenge to achieve this dramatic transition (e.g., cutting oil consumption by more than half within 20 years), but our research shows it's possible and that it would deliver many other benefits. Instead of debating whether we want oil trains or pipelines running through our backyard, we should be debating how to wind down the oil industry and commercialize and deploy Canada's vast clean energy potential. We believe that Canada has the skills, resources and knowhow to make this brighter future a reality.