The picture of the small Quebec town engulfed in a sky-high fireball would make a macabre poster for all that is wrong with our fossil fuel addiction. The tagline could read: "Are we nuts?"
Days after the blast caused by the petro-packed, runaway train, and likened to an atomic bomb by witnesses, police are combing through an apocalyptic crime scene in the historic Quebec town to figure out why it happened.
Even if they find a culprit or two, we will still need to look at the root causes of the terror that flattened much of the town and which is likely to claim the lives of dozens of innocent townsfolk. We need to look at the train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec as just another example of our oil addiction folly.
Oil, gas and coal fueled the industrial revolution and brought us many advances and comforts. But we now know we can do better -- fossil fuels choke the air we breathe and dangerously warm the planet.
We go to such lengths to keep everyone stocked up with the most dangerous products available. Oil companies are drilling to deeper, riskier depths in the Gulf of Mexico and companies are eyeing inhospitable areas such as the Arctic. We mine the Canadian oil sands, despite the horrific cost to the environment. Then we compound all these woes by shipping the stuff through accident-prone pipelines, ships and trains.
Carried in what could have been dangerously flawed tankers, the oil in the Quebec derailment had already traveled many thousands of miles and had many more to go before its journey was tragically interrupted.
From the Dot Earth blog in the New York Times:
"In case you missed it, the oil was being carried from America's new oil patch, the Bakken shale fields of North Dakota, to a St. John, New Brunswick, refinery that, according to the owner, Irving Energy, sends more than half of its 300,000 daily barrels of petroleum products back across the border to the northeastern United States."
With the tragedy still unfolding, a false, distracting narrative is on the rise: that the Quebec disaster means it would be better to approve more pipelines as they are a safer alternative to rail transport. The oil lobby will be using the line in a renewed push to get the Keystone Pipeline approved, a decision that still rests with President Barack Obama.
Ah yes, we can see the line now: Pipelines don't kill people. No, but they can really mess up the environment. There have been a series of spills in Alberta and in the United States recently, topped by the Michigan leak in 2010 on the Kalamazoo River that is now seen as America's biggest and costliest spill.
Looking at pipelines versus rail tankers is really like asking, "Should I drive the car with bad brakes or the one with bad tires?" Oil is unsafe at any speed on any mode of transport.
Some analysts believe people will begin to look at the bigger picture: take Kevin Book, the managing director of Research at ClearView Energy Partners.
"Committed critics...could conceivably seize upon the Lac-Megantic incident -- in tandem with recent pipeline spills -- to argue against oil production, irrespective of its mode of transport," he told Reuters.
So while we need tougher regulatory oversight for pipeline and rail transport, we also must accelerate our move away from fossil fuels to renewable sources. Big Oil, Big Rail and Big Pipeline won't be working on the problem anytime soon. It's up to us to push for new energy solutions through the choices we make and who we elect, so we can stop this madness.