Petro-political flows in Canada

October 9, 2013

Canadian ecosocialist Roger Annis analyzes the energy industry's new drive for more production--and the means to transport it via pipeline, rail and more.

POPULAR OPPOSITION in Canada to limitless fossil fuel projects is on the rise. The latest (eighth) comprehensive report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is warning of dire consequences if the world doesn't begin to sharply reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The number of derailments in crazed oil-by-rail schemes is mounting.

But none of this is slowing the frenetic efforts of Canada's business elite and petro-state to expand fossil fuel production and transport. They are setting the stage for sharp political struggles in the coming years between those who care for the fate of the Earth and the humans who inhabit it, and those who care only for money and the accumulation of personal wealth.

The West Coast Fossil-Fuel Blitz

Federal cabinet ministers have just completed a two-week blitz of the province of British Columbia to press for a full suite of fossil-fuel projects in that province--two tar sands pipelines from Alberta to the British Columbia coast; expanded natural gas fracking in the Northeast, to be piped for liquefaction on the North coast; and expanded coal mining and export.

Wreckage from the oil train disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec
Wreckage from the oil train disaster at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec

A particular target of the blitz was the scores of First Nations communities whose acceptance or acquiescence to these projects is vital. Pleas for the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline were soundly rebuffed by First Nations leaders. But reaction to the Trans Mountain tar sands line was muted, perhaps leaving room for some optimism for the industry.

Gas fracking and liquefaction, meanwhile, is getting some hopeful responses. The proposed, multibillion-dollar projects will turn BC's electrical energy production on its head and blow the province's feigned greenhouse gas emission targets (resembling its pretend "five conditions" for the Northern Gateway pipeline to proceed) out of the water. Many First Nations leaders along the gas pipelines routes are willing to buy in if the price is right, even as those living in the Northeast gas zones remain implacably opposed.

The ministers' blitz is prompted by a very big dilemma facing tar sands producers in northern Alberta and conventional and fracked oil producers in southern Alberta and Saskatchewan (the latter sharing the Bakken field also lying underneath North Dakota). That is the landlocked location of the resource.

Pipeline proposals to the south (Keystone XL) and west (Northern Gateway) are seriously stalled by public opposition. A new proposal to the east--a $12 billion, all-Canadian 'Energy East' pipeline--holds out hope, but it will take many years to build, and it may well come up against the kind of "wall of opposition" that has halted Northern Gateway.

Madcap Oil by Rail

So into the picture enters oil by rail. If anything illustrates the danger to the public welfare of the oil industry, this has to be it. Only three years since the vast expansion of oil-by-rail movement began in North America, Canada has suffered the awful disaster at Lac Mégantic, Quebec, in which 47 people died; two oil train derailments in the past three months alone in the center of its fourth largest city, Calgary; and now a derailment in the small town of Landis, Saskatchewan, during which authorities rushed to evacuate children from a nearby primary school.

The pressure to expand oil-by-rail is relentless. The trade in North America has grown from nearly nothing in 2009 to a projected movement this year of 150,000 rail cars in Canada and some 400,000 in the U.S.[1] Now two new plans are hitting the news.

A Denver-based company, Omnitrax, wants to ship fracked oil from North Dakota and Saskatchewan across the vast stretch of northern Manitoba to the port of Churchill on Hudson's Bay. Tankers would then move the oil through sub-Arctic waters to North American refiners.[2]

The company recently hired a Conservative Party member of parliament as its go-to guy for the project. Merv Tweed has resigned his elected post and been appointed as president of the Canadian division of Omnitrax. He is a good catch for the job. First elected in 2004 to a southern Manitoba district, he served as chairperson of the transport committee of the House of Commons from 2006 to 2012.

Manitoba's government has come out in opposition to the Omnitrax plan in its present form. "Lac-Mégantic was a wake-up call for all Canadians," says Minister of Transportation Steve Ashton. But his opposition is guarded. "Our advice to Omnitrax would be, go back to the drawing board on this," he says.

Ashton told CBC Radio's The Current on September 27 that he opposes rail shipment to Churchill of "the same kind of oil" that exploded in Lac Mégantic. This was the highly volatile North Dakota crude that investigators later discovered was being falsely labeled by the oil shipping scheme, which includes Irving Oil and Canadian Pacific Railway. Ashton didn't say what "other kind of oil" would be acceptable.[3]

First Nations in northern Manitoba are opposed to the plan. A big challenge for them and other Manitobans is that the province has little regulatory power in the matter. That power rests in federal hands.

Another rail project under discussion since at least March of this year has been revealed through access to information research by Greenpeace Canada researcher Keith Stewart. The Chinese state-owned Nexen Corp. has been in discussion with CN Rail to move tar sands bitumen from Alberta to the port of Prince Rupert on the northern British Columbia coast. CN claims it can move the equivalent of a Northern Gateway pipeline with seven to ten trains per day. Federal government officials have been involved in the talks and have encouraged the two potential business partners.

Meanwhile, the oil train derailments are accumulating. In Landis, 17 cars left the track just 500 meters from the town on September 25. At least five of the cars were carrying petroleum product, according to CN Rail. The company says oil leaked from only one of the cars.[4]

Train derailments and pollution in Calgary

The fallout from the recent oil train derailments in Calgary is continuing. The latest one, at CP Rail's Alyth yard in the center of the city on September 11, has focused attention on the efforts for several years now by residents of the adjoining Inglewood neighborhood to restrict noise and air pollution emanating from the large, locomotive repair operations at the yard and the overall increases in rail traffic, including oil trains.

In early August, the Canadian Transportation Agency ordered CP to move its locomotive repair to a more distant section of Alyth and to curb its overnight work. But when the September 11 derailment occurred, residents mounted a protest at the entrance to Alyth to voice additional concern over the danger of oil train movements.

The rail company responded to all this with a vengeance. On September 19, it announced it would move its locomotive repair operations from Alyth altogether. It did not consult or notify the workers' union Unifor, Nor were Inglewood residents or the city of Calgary informed. CP is not saying where the work will be moved. The city's mayor, Naheed Nenshi, has joined the union and residents in complaining about the lack of information and consultation coming from CP.

The Inglewood Community Association welcomed the announced move of locomotive repair out of Alyth. But it has voiced concern and solidarity about the fate of the workers. In a September 19 press release, it says the Alyth closure may well be a stealth measure that is part of the vast, job-cutting moves by CP Rail after a new management group took over last year, and declared job cuts and boosting CP's share price as its overriding priority.

"It appears that the statement is intended to obscure the layoffs which were likely in the works for some time because maintenance in Calgary, specifically Alyth, is gradually being moved to satellite centers outside of Calgary, which are less expensive," the association wrote in its release. "It also appears to deflect the adverse public reaction to the three derailments in the same number of months."

Last December, incoming CEO Hunter Harrison said he aims to cut nearly one-quarter of the company's approximately 20,000 employees over the next four years.

Harrison has lately been trying to get ahead of the attention and bad publicity that the company's role in the Lac Mégantic disaster could generate. Last week, the Globe and Mail printed a front-page story featuring him, in which he complained that federal government authorities and the companies that contract and ship oil, not the railways themselves, are at fault for the lax rail safety regulations that the recent oil train disasters have exposed.

According to Brian Stevens, the Unifor representative at the Alyth yard, the company has agreed to a meeting with the union to discuss a resolution of the issues at the yard that would be agreeable all around.

"There Will Be Oil"

First Nations leaders in British Columbia expressed puzzlement and wariness when the federal government undertook its fossil-fuel blitz in the province. Their concerns were borne out by the experience.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs told inquiring journalists that his discussion with ministers was a dialogue with the deaf. He told Vancouver Observer publisher Linda Solomon, "My point is there wasn't any engagement or dialogue in terms of Minister Oliver saying, 'What will it take? What are your recommendations?' There was nothing of that nature. He just sat there and repeated his talking points."

Phillip told the Vancouver Sun that he is concerned the blitz is designed to "fabricate a record of consultation" that would serve to impose Northern Gateway in the name of "national interest."

Coastal First Nations spokesperson Art Sterritt echoes that, telling the same newspaper, "They've been given instructions to get out here and improve relations, and I'm sure they're hopeful that they'll be able to clear the path for Northern Gateway."

No less a figure than Prime Minister Stephen Harper reinforced that wariness with a jarring message to U.S. audiences last week: that opposition to Keystone XL pipeline is an annoyance his government is determined to quash. "My view is you don't take no for answer," he told journalists in New York. "We haven't had that, but if we were to get that [a rejection], that won't be final. This won't be final until it's approved, and we will keep pushing forward."

Canada's largest newspaper chain, Postmedia, has joined that chorus. Its Calgary Herald outlet editorialized on September 24, "Oil will find a way. If not pipelines, then rail. Like rushing water will find the path of least resistance, oil and other energy resources will do the same."

The editors even leveled a new and novel threat--oil-by-truck! "[I]f rail is shut down, then the oil will be transported by trucks through our towns and cities," it said.

In what appears a coordinated effort, the chain's Vancouver Sun outlet penned a September 28 editorial, titled "Alberta oil will reach coast, like it or not." This article said, "All those wishing a plague on oil pipelines across B.C. might now be giving thought to an adage warning (sic): Be careful what you wish for. Because it is becoming clear, one way or another, the interests involved are going to find a way to move Alberta bitumen to the west coast."

The editors make a remarkable admission in writing: "The growing use of railways to move oil should concern British Columbians because of an apparent lack of regulatory oversight and enforcement."

That's not the message of the federal government, which is playing both sides of the pipeline vs. railway track, so to speak. Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who is the government's lead shill on behalf of the oil industry, says rail safety is just fine. He told the Globe and Mail on September 25 that the "overall" safety record of the railways "has been a very good one." He went on to say: "You know, you don't close down the roads when there is a terrible road accident. You try to make it as safe as it can be."

Actually, the minister is quite wrong. In wintery Canada, roads and highways are routinely closed during weather events. And in mountainous areas, some are closed for the entire winter season when the cost or inconvenience of keeping them open and safe is deemed excessive. Meanwhile, many biologists in western Canada argue that certain highways as well as transport routes for pipelines and hydro-electricity lines are a serious threat to areas of natural beauty and wildlife, and should not be built. Existing routes might even need to be closed to protect threatened species.

One of the important safety measures on rail that the federal government could implement is to order the railways to provide advance warnings to jurisdictions through which dangerous rail cargo travels. But it is taking the lead of the railways themselves in refusing to do so, including in the face of pleas by provincial and municipal governments for the information.

But that's a secondary point, because the main concern over the Canadian government's fossil fuel-promotion agenda is expressed in the IPCC's just-released report. If the world does not move decisively to leave fossil fuels in the ground and shift to renewable and less polluting forms of energy supply, then the Earth, its biosphere and the human population that shares it faces a very grim future, indeed. The struggle to achieve an ecologically sane future is only just beginning.


1. Statistics Canada reports that the number of railway oil wagons moved in Canada in July was 11,920, down from 13,339 in June.
2. This is not the first threat to the Arctic Ocean by the industry. A northern pipeline option from the Alberta tar sands to the Arctic shoreline has been considered by the tar sands industry and its Alberta government division. It may prove to be little more than a ploy to pressure for the pipelines it wants in the three other directions of the compass, but who knows in that crazed world. A first-ever, goods-carrying ocean tanker has passed through the Northwest Passage. The Nordic Orion carried a load of British Columbia coal from Vancouver to Finland. Oil companies, meanwhile, want to resume drilling in the Beaufort Sea, and at deeper depths than ever.
3. The conglomerate's rail shipments to Irving's Saint John, New Brunswick, refinery barely skipped a beat following the disaster at Lac Mégantic, including the switching of an unknown quantity over to the CN Rail main line that connects Montreal to Halifax.
4. Canada's rail companies refuse to divulge to provincial and municipal governments the content of dangerous rail cargo moving through their jurisdictions. The rail companies don't inform federal authorities, either, and according to Greenpeace Canada's Keith Stewart, even the railways don't necessarily know (nor want to know?) what exactly they are carrying.

First published at A Socialist in Canada.

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