Photo: Rail, pipeline and climate disasters are symptoms of fossil fuel addiction

We're not going to stop using oil overnight, and we will continue to transport it, so we must improve standards and regulations for pipelines, rail, trucks and tankers. (Credit: rickz via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Communications Manager Ian Hanington.

Like smokers who put off quitting until their health starts to suffer, we're learning what happens when bad habits catch up with us. We're witnessing the terrible effects of fossil fuel addiction every day: frequent, intense storms and floods, extended droughts, rapidly melting Arctic ice, disappearing glaciers, deadly smog and pollution, contaminated waterways and destroyed habitats. Transport accidents are also increasing as governments and industry scramble to get fuels out of the ground and to market as quickly as possible.

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Throughout it all, we're asking the wrong questions. Take the recent horrific disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. A train carrying fracked crude oil from North Dakota to a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, derailed, caught fire and caused explosions that destroyed much of the town and killed dozens of people, sending millions of litres of oil into the ground, air, sewers and Chaudière River. It's a senseless tragedy that has everyone in Canada and beyond grieving for the community's citizens and their families.

Governments and the railway company must answer numerous questions about safety regulations and practices, to prevent a similar catastrophe from ever occurring. The larger questions, though, are about the dramatic increases in fossil fuel use and transport. Sadly, industry proponents quickly exploited the situation to argue for expanding pipelines.

As growing human populations and increasing industrialization drive up the worldwide demand for fossil fuels, and as oil, gas and coal companies rush to extract, sell and burn as much as possible while markets remain strong, we're seeing ever-increasing exploitation from difficult sources — fracking, oil sands, deepsea drilling and more.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers expects oil production in Western Canada to double from three-million barrels a day to more than six-million by 2030. This means a huge increase in the amount of fuels transported around the country and the world in pipelines, rail cars, trucks and ocean tankers. According to the Railway Association of Canada, rail shipment of oil has already increased dramatically in Canada, from 500 carloads in 2009 to 140,000 this year.

It's true that rail accidents can be more devastating to human life than pipeline accidents — although when it comes to oil, pipeline breaks usually spill greater quantities and cause more environmental damage than train derailments. But shipping massive volumes of oil and gas is unsafe by either method. As we transport ever-increasing volumes of fossil fuels over greater distances to broader networks, we can expect more spills and accidents. Wastefully and rapidly burning them is also driving climate change, which experts say may even affect rail safety, as extreme heat and sudden temperature shifts can cause rails to buckle, increasing the potential for derailments.

Massive pipeline spills and devastating rail accidents are among the immediate and frightening consequences of our growing appetite for fossil fuels, but our bad habits are really starting to hit back with climate change. The homes and lives lost around the world, numerous plant and animal species facing extinction, rising health-care costs from pollution-related illness and massive clean-up efforts after flooding show that failing to address climate change is far more costly than doing something about it. Much of what we're seeing now — from increased intense rainfall and flooding in some parts of the world to extended droughts in others — is what climate scientists have been predicting for decades.

We're not going to stop using oil overnight, and we will continue to transport it, so we must improve standards and regulations for pipelines, rail, trucks and tankers. This should include safer rail cars for moving dangerous goods. Also, many environmental groups are calling for "a comprehensive, independent safety review of all hydrocarbon transportation — pipelines, rail, tanker and truck." But in the long run, we have to find ways to slow down. By conserving energy and switching to cleaner sources, we can start to move away from fossil fuels — and to use remaining reserves less wastefully.

That's the discussion we need to have, rather then getting mired in debates about transport methods. As energy writer Russ Blinch noted in a Huffington Post article, "Looking at pipelines versus rail tankers is really like asking, 'Should I drive the car with bad brakes or the one with bad tires?'"

We need to look at the big picture.

July 18, 2013

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Jul 30, 2013
2:12 PM

Either rail transportation or construction of long pipelines are consuming a great amount of energy and might cause catastrophic damage to local environment and people. In fact, rail transportation is no longer economic as expected due to increasing production and increasing related costs. Spill frequency of rail transportation is also higher compared to pipework. Governments should pay more attention to regulate the maintenance and operation to avoid accident like such. In fact, several protests have happened due the public’s doubt of Canada’s environmental commitment during the oil-land expansion. It is very important for the government to earn public trust starts with acknowledging risks. Also, it is recommended that public use independent research to assess the risk, rather than believing in the statements of the government and businesses. In this integrated business and social environment, the shipping by rail of fossil fuel is linked to the ability for countries to take meaningful action on climate change. The shipping method remains worth reckoning as long as the oil industry will continue to operate. I agree with the opinion that we need to look at the big picture. Both approaches carry environmental risks. It has to be recognized that the increasing demand human society heavily relies on the production of fossil fuel, therefore the transportation activities are inevitable, as well as severe issues along with it. The only way to eliminate such risks is to minimize the demand and production of fossil fuel. However, from an economic point of view, people would choose fossil fuel over renewable clean energy due to the high energy efficiency and availability of fossil fuel and supporting infrastructure. The governments and energy industry leaders should invest more on the research and development of clean energy, in order to reduce its cost and improve the public’s recognition of renewable energy and a sustainable life style.

Jul 19, 2013
7:11 PM

@Jim: The real (first) question is, do we really need to be using all this oil in the first place? I think on careful introspection, the answer is no.

As to your second question, most of our written and unwritten history proves that the molecular biology of the cell is a meaningful alternative to fossil fuel.

Jul 19, 2013
4:32 PM

@Coral Bentley. Thanks for your comment. The full sentence says, “According to the Railway Association of Canada, rail shipment of oil has already increased dramatically in Canada, from 500 carloads in 2009 to 140,000 this year.” If you click on the link, you’ll see that the Railway Association of Canada does say 140,000, which appears to be a more accurate figure than the one cited by CBC.

Jul 19, 2013
9:43 AM

Please forgive me for pointing out an error. This article says “rail shipment of oil has already increased dramatically in Canada, from 500 carloads in 2009 to 140,000 this year”, while the CBC article cited with respect to safer rail cars says “Rail shipments of oil in Canada have gone from about 6,000 train carloads in 2009 to an estimated 14,000 this year, according to Statistics Canada and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.”

Either way, there is a hefty increase, and it’s fair to assume it will continue to rise, but there’s a 100-fold difference between the values compared. I still hope that safety rules are improved, and that oil consumption can decrease significantly.

Jul 19, 2013
6:11 AM

I am wondering what shipping method uses more energy, trains or pipelines? Is the scientific community looking at molecular biology of the cell as a meaningful alternative to burning fossil fuel?

Jul 18, 2013
10:54 PM

Please keep explaining how there is a direct link from Fossil fuel > Climate change> severe weather conditions. From what I can gather, the average Canadian just doesn’t get it. From the feedback the grassroots ppl, it looks like Washington may side with GMO labelling. how to get it across to Canadian what this means? How to stop Nestle from water buying? Has our federal gov’t declared water a commodity? lastly, Thank You.

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