Like most Quebecers, I felt personally affected when I heard the news of the train derailment at Lac-Mégantic. I visited this charming little town several times, always during the month of August to look up at the Perseids from the Mont Mégantic Observatory.
The fact that this tragedy hit so close to home should motivate us that much more to find solutions to keep such things from happening again, here or anywhere else in North America. And as it happens, we have been embroiled for several months in an important continent-wide debate regarding the opportunity to build new pipelines.
According to green activist Steven Guilbeault, a spokesman for Équiterre, one of the most vocal environmentalist groups in Quebec, it is inappropriate to discuss this kind of issue while we're still counting bodies. In the same article, however, Mr. Guilbeault does not shy away from opportunistically offering up his preferred "solution" to the problem of transporting oil safely. He proposes, unsurprisingly, that we "free ourselves from our dependence on oil."
If you ask me, what's really inappropriate is pushing fantasies when we're faced with a very real problem that requires realistic solutions in the short- and medium-term.
We not only need to ensure our energy security, but we need to protect our natural environment and our physical safety as well. The reality is that even in Quebec, hydroelectric paradise that it is, with 40% of our energy needs met by electricity, oil fulfills an essentially equal portion of our needs at 39%.
Even if all Quebecers who are able to do so start taking the bus and the metro, carpooling or driving electric cars, we will still need to import considerable quantities of oil to keep our economy running.
We should not forget that gasoline consumption for automobiles represents just 43% of refined petroleum products in Canada. Diesel fuel, which is used to run farming and mining machinery, for example, accounts for 27%, the kerosene used to fuel airplanes for 6% and heating oil for another 4% (Natural Resources Canada, p. 21).
What's more, it would be completely impossible to "free ourselves from our dependence on oil" without foregoing innumerable everyday objects. Synthetic fibres, plastics and the many types of polymers made from oil are literally everywhere, from iPhones to contact lenses -- not to mention children's toys, clothing made from polyester, nylon and acrylic, plastic bottles and toothpaste. Even Steven Guilbeault's bicycle rolls on tires whose manufacture requires several litres of oil!
In the short and medium term, oil will therefore continue to be a part of our lives. Oil will still be transported in various ways (by train, by boat, by tanker truck, etc.), whether or not the controversial pipelines are approved. All methods of transporting oil will remain relevant and necessary for some time yet.
Pipelines, though, have the advantage of being by far the safest method of transportation.
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an American specialist on the issue, quoted the official figures of the American Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in a Globe and Mail article that appeared after the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
The latest available data show that between 2005 and 2009, road transport had the highest rate of serious incidents in the United States, with 19.95 per billion ton-miles (tons of freight transported a distance of one mile). Rail transport came in second with 2.08 incidents, while pipeline transport had only 0.58 incidents per billion ton-miles.
Numbers of injuries and deaths show similar trends. Rail transport was 37 times more likely to lead to injury and 25 times more likely to lead to death than pipeline transport. As for road transport, it was 143 times more likely to lead to injury and 70 times more likely to lead to death than pipeline transport.
Clearly, the level of safety is considerably higher when oil is transported by pipeline than by other methods of transportation. All transport options obviously have their costs and inconveniences, including pipelines, but pipeline transport is much less likely to lead to serious accidents like this most recent one.
These are the kinds of data that we should keep in mind when the time comes to decide whether projects like those proposed by Enbridge and TransCanada should be approved or not.