Tragedy in Quebec and the consequences of oil addiction


There was a new environmental tragedy this weekend — and it came with a twist. A train that was hauling tanker cars laden with oil produced in the booming Bakken fields in North Dakota and bound for refineries in Eastern Canada broke loose and crashed into a small town in Quebec near its border with Maine, unleashing an ungoldy amount of death and destruction:

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec (AP) – As firefighters doused still burning oil tanker cars, more bodies were recovered Sunday in this devastated town in eastern Quebec, raising the death toll to five after a runaway train derailed, igniting explosions and fires that destroyed the downtown district.

With dozens of people reported missing, authorities expected to find more bodies once they reach the hardest-hit area.

Quebec provincial police Lt. Michel Brunet said Sunday that at least 40 people are reported missing, but cautioned that the number could fluctuate up or down. Brunet confirmed two more deaths early Sunday afternoon after confirming two people were found dead overnight. One death was confirmed Saturday.

Fires were preventing rescuers from reaching part of the 73-car train, and billowing black smoke could still be seen long after the derailment.

The initial news accounts have focused largely on the disturbing video of the initial out-of-control fires, and on the search for the dead and the missing. That is completely understandable — certainly our hearts go out to anyone who was affected by the tragedy, which must have shocked this isolated Canadian community.

Once the last fires are extinguished and the lost are accounted for, the conversation will inevitably turn to what it means for the environment. There is no doubt that while activists in the environmental community have been incredibly focused on preventing risky pipeline construction — and particularly the Keystone XL pipeline that would ship oil from the Canadian tar sands across the United States. But  the reality also is that rail transportation of fossil fuels has increased exponentially. And the risks are clearly substantial:

Larger trains are harder to control, and that increases the chances of something going wrong, safety experts said. State and local emergency officials worry about a derailment in a population center or an environmentally sensitive area such as a river crossing.

Rail accidents occur 34 times more frequently than pipeline ones for every ton of crude or other hazardous material shipped comparable distances, according to a recent study by the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. The Association of American Railroads contends the study was flawed but acknowledges the likelihood of a rail accident is double or triple the chance of a pipeline problem.

The environmental fears carry an ironic twist: Oil trains are gaining popularity in part because of a shortage of pipeline capacity — a problem that has been worsened by environmental opposition to such projects as TransCanada’s stalled Keystone XL pipeline. That project would carry Bakken and Canadian crude to the Gulf of Mexico.

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, described rail as “the greater of two evils” because trains pass through cities, over waterways and through wetlands that pipelines can be built to avoid.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen. It’s going to be a mess and we don’t know where that mess is going to be,” Schafer said.

What concerns me is that in the days and weeks ahead, Big Oil is going to attempt what they do best, and try to turn this to their advantage as an argument to get the Keystone XL approved. Let’s be clear — the numerous pipeline accidents that have already occurred across the United States as well as Canada, including the recent spill that sickened an entire neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark., proves that this is not an acceptable answer.

The reality is that we have an administration in Washington that has so far faltered badly in its promises to make alternative sources such as solar and wind the cornerstone of its energy policies. Instead, we’ve seen a new oil rush — one that is putting citizens at risk by both pipeline and by rail. The only real and safe solution is to ween North America off its addiction to oil, so there’s reduced demand for the Keystone XL — but also for rail. Instead, this weekend’s tragedy has mirrored our current policy — a runaway train wreck.

For more information about the deadly train wreck in Quebec. please read:

For the full background on increased transportation of oil by rail, please read:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • Dear Mr. Smith,
    I live in the first municipality in Chenango County New York to ban fracking. The county tried to overrule our Village’s ban because it might limit the transportation of petroleum on a rail line that runs through the middle of our village. The Lac-Megantic tragedy strikes a chord. How can we find out if the fracked oil product apparently from the ND Bakken play contained some methane that might account for the intensity of the inferno? Please keep us posted on any new information you discover.
    Irving Wesley Hall
    Oxford NY

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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