Meet the culprit behind Lac-Mégantic

So far, 15 people are reported dead, with many more missing, after a train carrying crude oil exploded in Lac-Mégantic on Saturday. But who — or what — is really to blame?

Lac-Mégantic on Saturday. Photo via Flickr

Before the ash clouds could even settle after the tragic events in Lac-Mégantic last weekend, oil pipeline shills were chomping at the drill bit to point out that their methods of crude oil transport are significantly safer than the train.

So what?

The pipeline-vs.-train debate is a red herring, one intended to distract us from the real issues.

Even if companies like TransCanada, the firm behind the hotly debated Keystone XL project in the United States, can establish that pipelines are 10 times or 100 times safer than train or truck transportation, who cares? It’s a little like arguing that swimming across Lake Ontario is safer in a wetsuit than a Speedo. We don’t need to be doing either!

The cargo that the runaway Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train was carrying was from a shale oil and natural gas deposit in North Dakota and Montana. The companies exploiting the Bakken formation have recently begun producing oil and gas at a rate that significantly exceeds current pipeline capacity to ship it out, thanks to the controversial extraction process known as fracking. And that situation will get much worse as developers plan to triple production. Since pipelines can’t be built that fast, Bakken developers have turned to rail as their solution.

While it is true that there was insufficient pipeline capacity to carry the crude, that’s mainly because the Bakken developers are exploiting the field at a speed that far outstrips their ability to transport the crude oil to refineries.

In other words, they are trying to make a lot of money in a damn hurry.

That’s how the MM&A train came to be sitting on the tracks 9.7 kilometres above Lac-Mégantic with a cargo of 8 million litres of light crude oil that would soon turn the tiny downtown into the heart of hell, roasting alive at least 15 people, with many more missing.

So if you want to know what’s really responsible for the Lac Mégantic “train de la mort,” the answer, once more, is plain old greed.

* * *

The shale oil in Bakken has been there for about 500 million years, so it’ll probably still be there next week. As with Alberta’s tar sands, the sudden boost in production and consequent demand for more shipping capacity is not a response to urgent needs for more oil but simply a desire to make as much money as possible in short order.

It’s not like the oil is gushing uncontrollably out of the ground like a scene from The Beverly Hillbillies; the pace of development is dictated by the people who are exploiting the resource. The only need they are responding to is the desire to make more money for shareholders.

Unlike the members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, private oil companies (and the Harper government) don’t seem to be concerned with how quickly they drain the resources. Nor do they care much about what effect their actions have on the environment or public safety.

There is no oil shortage. In fact, forecasters are predicting a glut. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “the global supply of crude oil, other liquid hydrocarbons and biofuels is expected to be adequate to meet the world’s demand for liquid fuels for at least the next 25 years.”

So why the rush? Shouldn’t we be concentrating on cutting our use of fossil fuels rather than speeding to get them out of the ground, oblivious to the potential damage fracking and the tar sands’ bitumen extraction will have on the environment?

More pipelines are not the solution to the safety issue — they are symbols of our acquiescence to the desires of the resource industry to milk our cows as quickly as they can until they’ve drained them of every last drop of milk.

So instead of debating the best method to get the milk to market — by train or pipeline — it might make more sense to debate whether we really need 100 million barrels a day.

There are many reasons why the Lac-Mégantic train explosion and the deaths of so many innocents should never have occurred, but it starts with the fact that the death train never needed to be there in the first place. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter, or find out about his upcoming stand-up performances here.

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