Ben West: Rail versus pipelines, are those really our only choices?

I never thought I would say this, but I think oil pipeline proponents are going to be happy about our new website that went live last week.

My colleagues from ForestEthics in the United States have just launched a new website,,  which shows the risk along oil-by-rail routes in North America. It’s shocking just how many people are living in the danger zones.

This is, of course, a new threat we have all become more aware of due to the horrible tragedy at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. We’ve just passed the one year anniversary of this unforgettable day and it was commemorated last week by citizens in various cities organizing events along rail shipping routes.

Folks are waking up to this threat in the U.S., but here in Canada it’s becoming a more complicated conversation as it relates to highly controversial pipeline project proposals.

I’m glad there’s growing awareness of the risks posed by oil by rail. But let’s face it, the proponents of pipelines like Enbridge and Kinder Morgan are also happy about this; as I say, they may even appreciate the new ForestEthics website.

Why would they like this website? Well, my experience as an anti-pipeline campaigner sums it up. These days I find myself being asked the same question over and over again, “Yes, but what about the exploding trains, aren’t pipelines safer?”

This is a false choice. The answer is none of the above. The "choice" between pipelines and rail is like asking what’s better for you, chewing tobacco or smoking cigarettes? Both are extremely dangerous and highly toxic. The only real solution is to quit tobacco.

Like with the tobacco industry, it’s in fact many of the same companies looking to profit from both of these false choices. Kinder Morgan, which is behind the massive new TransMountain pipeline proposed from Alberta to Vancouver Harbour, have also recently invested heavily in a new oil-by-rail terminal in Edmonton.

With the success of the campaigns against Keystone XL, Enbridge Northern Gateway, and other pipelines in North America, the oil industry is trying to use rail infrastructure as a back door route to get around public scrutiny and democratic consultation processes.

For the communities in the path of Big Oil, it doesn’t matter so much whether it’s travelling by rail or pipeline. Those who have faced a spill will tell you that no family should have to live with the threat of crude oil poisoning their community.

As we run out of easy-to-access conventional crude oil globally and shift to unconventional fuels like heavy tar sands bitumen and shale oil from rocks, the problems of finding, mining, refining, and burning oil are compounded. Conventional crude spills like the Exxon Valdez caused immeasurable harm, but unconventional oil products are even worse. Tar sands spills have proven to be even more difficult to clean up, as we learned from Enbridge’s spill in the Kalamazoo River, and shale oil has a tendency to explode, as we learned at Lac Megantic.

Unconventional fuels come with a bigger price tag not only in terms of the risks but also in terms of dollars and cents. The price of gas at the pump is only going up and the subsidies to industry to facilitate the shift to more expensive extraction of these bottom-of-the-barrel fuels is coming out of taxpayers’ pockets. It really is nuts for our hard-earned loonies to be going to some of the wealthiest corporations in the world, especially given the disregard the oil industry has shown for human health and safety.

The only reason the oil industry can get away with framing the question as rail versus pipeline is that we are being led to believe that there are not currently viable alternatives.

The good news is they are wrong and it’s time we all start talking about it.

Did you know that more people today work in the solar panel industry than in the coal and gas industries combined in the United States? Did you know the second best stock on NASDAQ last year was a Canadian renewable energy company called Canadian Solar? Did you know that Tesla Motors is now the biggest auto industry employer in California? Did you know that the World Bank has recently put out a report that says renewable energy is a 2.6 trillion dollar a year opportunity?  Did you know that the International Energy Agency says that not only can we decarbonize and meet global energy demand from renewable sources but it will actually save the global economy approximately 71 trillion dollars by 2050?

So it’s not about rail versus pipelines, but about whether we are going to be part of the emerging new energy and transportation economy. We should be moving people on those trains, not fossils.

I’m confident that Canadians are savvy enough to see through the industry spin. We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. That’s bad news for Big Oil and good news for everyone else. 

Comments (14) Add New Comment
Ok, oil is primarily about vehicles. Solar vehicles are far, far away and there is little doubt they would even work very well in a country like Canada. Tesla and electric cars are ok in urban environments, but not in rural regions. There are also very little, if any, electric vehicles that can haul more than a few people. I know of no electric vehicles that can transport large amounts of consumer goods. So it seems like the answer to the question is Yes - those are our only choices until we make better progress. And please don't say that everybody should ride bikes. That does nothing for my grandmother when she has to go from east Van to N. Van to see her doctor in January. It's easy to be against oil, but please have a reasonable alternative.
Rating: -11
ursa minor
People did quite all right in rural areas using horses for centuries.
Rating: +3
"There are also very little, if any, electric vehicles that can haul more than a few people. I know of no electric vehicles that can transport large amounts of consumer goods."

Really? You don't know that more than two-thirds of the bus routes in Vancouver are electric? You don't know that all three light-rail lines into Vancouver are electric?

But it's easier to miss that both Canada Post and Mills stationary have electric vans and that of India's 65,436 km rail network 23,541 km (36%) is electrified and 4,568 of India's 9,013 Locomotives are electric.
Rating: +14
"Tesla and electric cars are ok in urban environments, but not in rural regions."

Why not? 400-500 km range on the Tesla would be adequate for most trips. Tesla plans to add super charger stations in Hope and Kamploops, which means that you can easily make a day trip from Vancouver to the Cariboo.

For trips between cities the real solution is electrified rail that is common in Europe and Japan. For shorter trips in rural areas bio-fuels are also an alternative.

"...very little, if any, electric vehicles that can haul more than a few people...."

I guess you have never heard of trains.

".. I know of no electric vehicles that can transport large amounts of consumer goods..."

We already have a least tow large 100% delivery trucks here in Vancouver (one is a Navistar). There are also bio-diesel/electric hybrid trucks delivering goods without any fossil fuels.

"...from east Van to N. Van ..."

Electrified public transit would easily provide a solution to this problem. And we have at least two car sharing companies in Vancouver that offer electric vehicles that have a range that is 2-3 times more than a return trip from East Van to North Van.
Rating: +16
Darren T.
It's always the same story with people who are against transit, or against electric vehicles, or whatever. They always have a specific set of circumstances where the a single-occupant, gasoline-powered vehicle is the only option.

Instead of getting dragged into arguing these minutiae, let's just agree that (for the foreseeable future at least) there will always be some roles for the current technology. Concede the point, and focus on the fact that we can, with minimal pain, switch over the VAST majority of people for the VAST majority of their transportation usage, resulting in a huge reduction in oil consumption.

The last 10% of the changeover (or any change) will be hard, but don't let that distract from the (relatively) easy 90%.
Rating: +15
bill jones
Don't forget telecommuting, 3 day work weeks, and job sharing, all reducing commuting needs.

From clean energy produced hydrogen we can soften the transition to EV's with zero carbon ammonia (similar to propane) and carbon based synfuels blended from cement plant carbon.

With our current massive surplus of IPP hydro, we could become a world leader in Geothermal heat pump systems eliminating our natural gas use.

Whether we export our remaining gas and expedite the relatively safe shipment of undiluted tar so thick ya can stand on it by rail, will depend on how Pollyannish we wish to be. Best to lead by example locally but make a good buck on the remnants of a dying industry.

The wind/solar industry has been a massive and expensive failure wherever it is tried. Best we let others beat their heads against the wall, till they get it sorted.

Meantime we have lots of hydro surplus, and a massive oversupply of wind power available for nearly free from Washington state readily converted to meet our own clean energy heat and transportation needs.
Rating: -12
Earl Richards
Tar sands should not be permitted into BC, because there is no equipment to clean-up a tar sands spill. The tar sands have to be refined on the tar sands to prevent another Kalamazoo River disaster. It is time for BC and WA to start switching to renewable energies.
Rating: +2

"Solar vehicles are far, far away..."

A battery-electric vehicle charged off the north american grid, where the grid is largely powered by solar (even if it's in California), is a solar vehicle.

"Tesla and electric cars are ok in urban environments, but not in rural regions..."

1) 81% of the population lives in urban areas.
2) Why not?

"There are also very little, if any, electric vehicles that can haul more than a few people. I know of no electric vehicles that can transport large amounts of consumer goods."

1) Most families are only max 4 people.
2) How often do you really need a huge vehicle? 1% of trips? Unless it's for business use, large vehicles are mostly about ego.
3) Tesla's model S carries 7 people, or 5 with a huge trunk. They're coming out with a much cheaper model within two years.

"It's easy to be against oil, but please have a reasonable alternative."

The oil is NOT FOR US. It's being loaded on ships. These pipelines have nothing to do with north american oil consumption.

In fact the very reason they're being built is because north americans are consuming LESS oil. We ARE conserving. Oil consumption in north america has been declining since 2005. So has driving. Look it up.
Rating: +8

"The wind/solar industry has been a massive and expensive failure wherever it is tried. Best we let others beat their heads against the wall, till they get it sorted."

You have no idea what you're talking about. Solar installation is on an exponential growth curve, and is on track to be cheaper than coal-generated electricity within a year.
Rating: +6
David Prytula
Watch the Doc "Who killed the electric car?"And makes you wonder why people say that electric vehicles can't carry heavy loads.Electric golf carts have been carrying big,overweight oil execs while they do their business deals on the golf courses of the world for many many years!!!!
Rating: +1
Spin spotter
Wow! Tesla is the biggest auto industry employer in California?!? The state best known for its huge auto industry is now led by an electric vehicle company? Oh wait it isn't that big a deal. As usual the "alternatives" are always affordable in the near future but people will still be using carbon fuels for the next few decades. What is most entertaining in this entire debate is how both sides blast propaganda and how many of you eat up the rhetoric and "science" of whichever side your conditioning has determined you believe.
Rating: -4
In my opinion, rail vs pipeline an irrelevant question.
Our oil/bitumen is far too valuable to be burnt.

Cars can be run on things other than petrochemicals, but you cannot make plastic and certain kinds of plastic and medicine without petrochemicals.

Canada is sitting on a gold mine of future plastic, medicine, fertilizer. Selling it for pennies per litre to be burnt is STOOOPID.

The only reasonable answer to "would you please send us your oil by rail or pipeline is so that we can burn it" is "fuck off!"
Rating: +1
John Simpson
Great piece Ben, but you have got to mention climate change in these things. Your argument seems to be focused on the risk of spills, which I'm sad to say, is viewed as a NIMBY problem by most. So long as it's not in their backyard, people won't care if there are oil spills. Climate change however will affect us all, and is not only the more important reason to get off oil, but also the one that will be more successful politically.
Rating: 0
Martin Cavin
Unfortunately virtually all renewable energy like wind, solar, run-of-river is expensive and/or intermittent. With the exception of a large hydro dam, technology is not there yet to produce large amounts of cheap renewable FIRM energy which large utilities need.
Even large dams have issues. They're capital intensive, flood land and take a decade to build. They risk becoming white elephants due to rapidly changing energy and technology markets. The $6.5 billion La Romaine dam project in Quebec is only half built and in trouble because the recent abundance of shale gas has driven down the market price of electricity. Work on fusion and thorium reactors are showing promise and could make Site C obsolete before it is completed.
If there really was a magic bullet the market would soon find it. With time change will occur. In the interim we need oil for pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, pesticides, plastics etc. We could not grow enough food to sustain the world's population without oil.
Rating: +1
Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.