10/21/2013 09:39 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Alberta Train Derailment Adds Fuel To Pipeline Debate

The latest derailment of a train carrying petroleum products — this time in Alberta over the weekend — is adding more fuel to the debate over pipeline development in Canada.

More than 100 people who live near the derailment near Gainford, about 80 kilometres west of Edmonton, remain unable to return to their homes. They've been evacuated from their residences since 13 cars carrying oil and liquefied petroleum gas went off the rails early Saturday.

"Public opinion has always been that pipelines are the safest way to move fossil fuels," Conservative MP Rob Merrifield said on Parliament Hill.

Before the latest derailment, the Fraser Institute think-tank was pointing to a report that pipelines in North America are more than twice as safe as rail.

'By operating more safely, the pipelines should be building social licence, when people look around at the disasters they are seeing in terms of derailments, the social licence for that should go up," said Kenneth Green, senior director for the Centre for Natural Resources at the Fraser Institute.

Even British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, who has raised concerns over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline because of safety, acknowledges the advantages of pipelines over trains.

"We see more spills and more environmental issues as a result of it, so I've always said that pipelines are safer than rail," said Clark.

Alberta's growing oilsands industry is using more trains because existing pipelines are running out of room. Four years ago, trains carried 10,000 barrels of crude oil each day. Now, they are carrying 175,000 barrels a day.

Not everyone, however, thinks Alberta's train wreck or the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster in July will sway the public toward pipelines.

Environmental economist Andrew Leach of the University of Alberta says that's because people are getting nervous about accidents in the oil industry as a whole.

“I think they are going to say, ‘Why is it again we have to transport this oil, and why are we exposing ourselves to this risk?’”

The federal Conservative government has linked economic growth to getting oil and gas to new markets, and federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt has promised tougher rules.

“Derailments do happen and pipeline leaks do happen. Our job is to make sure we have the rules and the [regulations] make it as safe as possible," Raitt said.

The government has already put more money into rail safety and increased fines. It's also promising new safety measures for both pipelines and rail companies that carry hazardous goods, but there are few details about when that's going to happen.

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