Monday, August 26, 2013

Oil Through Churchill

Oil pipeline across Manitoba
Make no mistake...oil is going across Manitoba now. It is shipped by truck, rail and pipe. We are likely to see even more over the next few years.

The increases in rail and truck traffic has spiked enormously. Literally tens of thousands of tankers are moving across North America filled with oil where just even a few years ago almost nothing went that way.

As Lac Megantic can attest to, there are dangers involved that need to be addressed.

You don't have to be a wooly eyed environmentalist to be horrified by loss of life and destruction that happened in Quebec. Seems a pretty high cost of doing business.

And oil spills from pipelines seem to happen with regularity as do refinery disasters.

The long terms costs to the environment and to people's health are well known. Smog and particulate matter are undeniable. Water contamination is a fact. And scientists say our need for oil comes at the cost of global warming.

Most of the increase in rail oil traffc has happened without anyone knowing about it. It should not be surprising given that pipeline approvals are slow or not coming at all. The insatiable demand for oil had suppliers seek out other methods of transporation.

The state of North Dakota has lept up to become the second largest oil producer in the U.S. in a very. very short time. Only Texas is bigger now. Unlike Texas though which has built pipelines and supply routes over a long time, North Dakota is experiencing boom growth that outpaces present infrastructure. The rail lines in the area were set up for agriculture not oil. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Rail has announced hundreds of millions of rail expansion for the area.

Pipelines just aren't getting approved or built fast enough.

The people who have successful blocked pipeline development probaby had no idea that rail traffic would leap to 500,000 tankers of oil this year from a few thousand maybe even five years go.

According to some environmentalists, there is no safe way to transport oil and that every drop burned is destruction of lives and eco-system. This might be true. However, there are no alternatives that are cheaper or as easily available. Even reducing enegy needs doesn't make the need go away.

In short, the economy and people's lives depend on energy and no collectivist anti-development pro-environment opposition will change that.

So here is the conundrum: we need oil and people will suffer and die without it. The result of our need for oil is that people will suffer and die because of it. Yeesh. What to do?

 It seems clear that since oil is not going away too soon that government and industry have to take a stand on safety. If people feel they are easily sacrificed, they will resist at every turn oil exploration, transport logistics and general use that may affect them negatively.

Port of Churchill
The announcement that Omnitrax Canada is going to experiment with a shipment of oil from Alberta through the northern port of Churchill has got some environmentalist up in arms. Omnitrax has tried to keep the rail, port and Churchill Fuel Terminal viable as private enterprises but the main trade passing through for decades has been grain. In October, they hope to send oil via the deep water northern port via a 330,000 gallon tanker ship.

Many people forget how the federal government stepped back from investing in Churchill and the north. First the military pulled back and then space-based rocket testing and then it looked like the very lifeline of the port, rail and grain trade was about to end. Lloyd Axworthy helped with the privatization that saw big U.S. operator Omnitrax take over.

Town of Churchill
The Town of Churchill depends completely on the rail link and the port for its long term success.

Presently, Omnitrax is completing a $2 million construction project to accommodate the new oil business. They also announced that former Brandon Member of Parliament Merv Tweed is becoming President of Omnitrax at the same time. Tweed announced his resignation as MP and hours later he was standing out front with his new job.

It is only two years ago that Brad Chase, formerly an exec at Kleyson took over the top Omnitrax job in Winnipeg with its 16 employees on Carlton Street.

Obviously, the heavy duty politics of having 10 ships a year pick up over 3 million barrels of oil a year using the rail, port and fuel terminal needed an inside guy to shepherd it through. Tweed, with his Conservative connections and loyal service to Stephen Harper, seems to fit the bill.

On the face of it, it would seem that federal Conservatives would embrace a new transport route for oil via the north. Stephen Harper travels to the area every year making announcements about how important the area is. It is true that tens of millions have been spent on the route to Churchill from the The Pas as well as port improvements. However, the prime minister has fallen short of re-establishing a permanent military presence in Churchill for both the navy and air force.

Instead Harper has announced three different military bases for Resolute, Nanisvik and Iqaluit. None are established and ships that were supposed to be ready this year have not even begun construction. Snowmobiles won't be purchased till 2021 and there are no plans to replace the rifle that ranger use which go back to World War I.

It is seven years of unfulfilled promises in the north but it meat for the partisan masses in the south in that it all sounds good.

The focus should have been for the military to make sure Churchill became the navy port of the north. It is already a deep water civilian port. It is where any icebreaker and tugs should be based and the launching point for economic development and the establishment of a security and rescue presence.

But back to oil...

Churchill's fuel depot already receives oil along the rail line. Over the last 15 years, it has received 2.5 million barrels of mostly gas and diesel over the rail line. Still, it is a big difference receiving those type of deliveries every year not to mention the shipping aspect through Hudson's Bay.

I'll repeat that: Omnitrax wants to transport 3 million barrels over softening permafrost for a shipping season that is growing but is still four months long.

The tracks will need greater monitoring, more safety checks and lots of consultation. It appears that many people in Churchill might support the movement of oil through the port. Others don't even want the fuels that comes through now and might even support closing the rail link to the port for environmental reasons.

It will be a battle for sure and it might be one that Omnitrax might not win. And if it doesn't, is the future of northern Manitoba in jeopardy? If the grain industry declines at the port, the very lifeblood of the rail and port could falter. I don't think the government will buy the rail and port back if private industry fails.

Things might move faster than anyone realizes as it seems rail traffic and oil is growing swiftly.

This could be a very good thing for Manitoba. It could also be terrible if a disaster happens as a result of transporting oil through vulnerable areas. But why should the north not have economic activity that happens every day in the south?

Lip service can't be given to safety and environmental concerns but nor should the impact on the economy.

The government needs to be strong and represent all the interests of the province both economic and environmental. It remains to be seen whether the provincial NDP or the federal Conservatives are prepared to do that.

Both seem very nervous about the prospect of a lot of oil heading through North America's only deep water port in the north.

1 comment:

Purple Rod said...

As long as the oil industry does not use fracking to extract the oil, I am not that concerned. The economic benefits could finally turn Manitoba into a "have" province.