If not by pipes, then by rail cars

The Daily Courier - - OPINION - LES LEYNE

Maybe Pre­mier John Hor­gan’s show­down Sun­day with Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau and Al­berta Pre­mier Rachel Not­ley will smooth out the pipe­line ar­gu­ment.

But there’s an un­com­fort­able fact of life that has been pushed into the back­ground by the pipe­line bat­tle that puts B.C. even deeper into a cor­ner. It’s that rail cars are an­other op­tion to move crude oil.

They’re rolling now, they’ll con­tinue or even in­crease re­gard­less of the pipe­line, and they’re at least as risky, if not more.

Adding to the awk­ward­ness is the fact that B.C. has ex­actly the same amount of au­thor­ity over rail traf­fic as it does over pipe­lines — next to none. And the NDP cab­i­net is the first to ad­mit it.

En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Ge­orge Hey­man star­tled many peo­ple last week with a frank ad­mis­sion that govern­ment lawyers ad­vised the NDP cab­i­net right after it was sworn in that it would be “un­law­ful and in­ap­pro­pri­ate” to keep ut­ter­ing their cam­paign prom­ise to “stop” the pipe­line. He was also ex­plicit about the rea­son for the cau­tion — B.C. has no ju­ris­dic­tion over pipe­lines.

“It was made clear to me, made clear to us, that is­sues of in­ter­juris­dic­tional im­mu­nity and paramountcy meant that we couldn’t sim­ply do what we ini­tially, in op­po­si­tion, thought was an op­tion for govern­ment.”

His col­league, Transportation Min­is­ter Claire Trevena, has ac­knowl­edged the same thing when it comes to rail move­ments of crude oil. The topic came up in the leg­is­la­ture last month and Trevena re­peat­edly con­ceded B.C. has no play.

“Our rail lines … are fed­er­ally reg­u­lated. … Min­istry staff, go­ing through this, are not aware of any way … that [crude oil ship­ments] could be re­stricted.”

“The min­istry’s reg­u­la­tory frame­work, as far as we’re aware, does not al­low us to do any­thing.” Both min­is­ters con­ceded the points un­der ques­tion­ing by Abbotsford West Lib­eral MLA Mike de Jong. The B.C. Lib­er­als are keen to ex­ploit any weak­ness in the NDP an­tip­ipeline po­si­tion. But de Jong has a per­sonal in­ter­est, as well.

The CN main line runs 15 me­tres from the liv­ing room of his home on Mat­squi Prairie, and the dra­matic in­crease in the num­ber of oil-tanker cars trundling past is more ob­vi­ous to him than most peo­ple. The trains are much longer and they’re com­ing much more fre­quently.

More alarm­ing is that they’ve bar­relled down the Fraser Canyon to get to that point. For all the fear about a ma­rine tanker spill, a rail spill by the river would be at least as se­ri­ous, and is sta­tis­ti­cally a more likely pos­si­bil­ity.

There’s been an­other re­mark­able ad­mis­sion about crude oil dur­ing leg­is­la­ture de­bate about the pipe­line — the B.C. govern­ment has no clue about ex­actly how much di­luted bi­tu­men is mov­ing through B.C.

It’s not a par­ti­san point. The B.C. Lib­er­als were just as much in the dark as the NDP are. Rules were en­acted only re­cently to pro­duce the in­for­ma­tion, and there are no hard provin­cial data on oil — how much, what kind and where it’s go­ing.

Hey­man said in the house: “We have not had the tools. We don’t have the in­for­ma­tion. I agree — we should have it. … But I can’t an­swer the ques­tion to­day with the kind of pre­ci­sion that I think I should be able to as min­is­ter.”

At one point, Trevena hud­dled with the CEO of B.C. Rail dur­ing de­bate on her spend­ing es­ti­mates, then had to ac­knowl­edge they didn’t know if di­luted bi­tu­men was trans­ported on the smaller provin­cially reg­u­lated line. “We haven’t been able to track that one down.”

By con­trast, de Jong has bran­dished U.S. data that show Washington state’s ecol­ogy de­part­ment has de­tailed quar­terly re­ports on crude-oil move­ments by both rail and pipe­line. And much of the rail move­ments come from B.C., near Belling­ham.

It’s on the in­crease. Cana­dian govern­ment data on oil ex­ported by rail ship­ments show the same thing, as do in­ter­na­tional fore­casts.

Hey­man is still talk­ing about reg­u­lat­ing oil rail traf­fic in some fash­ion, us­ing what he has called “sup­ple­men­tary au­thor­ity.”

It’s not clear yet how the pipe­line ar­gu­ment would be re­solved. But it looks clear that crude oil is go­ing to move through B.C. one way or the other.

Les Leyne cov­ers the B.C. Leg­is­la­ture for the Vic­to­ria Times Colonist. This col­umn ap­pears in The Courier on a re­cur­ring ba­sis.

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