Environmental group pans shipping oil through Churchill

The Wilderness Committee has a three-letter position on the Port of Churchill: ABO, or anything but oil.

Eric Reder, the environmental group’s campaign director in Manitoba, said it opposes a proposal to ship oil through Churchill because it is environmentally reckless.

He wants the Manitoba government pass legislation prohibiting shipments of oil through the port.

“We’re relying on the Manitoba government to ensure that this plan doesn’t happen,” he said.

“I expect the Manitoba government will put in place a ban on shipping crude oil through Hudson Bay…. We expect the Manitoba government to say no to crude oil through this region (through legislation).”

OmniTrax Canada, which owns the railway to Hudson Bay and the Port of Churchill, intends to transport oil by rail and load it onto tanker ships at Churchill in 2014.

The company plans a trial shipment of 330,000 barrels of light, sweet crude from Alberta in the summer, If it is successful, OmniTrax hopes to ship 3.3 million barrels per year on the Hudson Bay Railway and through the Port of Churchill.

A provincial spokesperson said Transport Canada regulates the shipments of petroleum products by rail and ship.

“The Manitoba government has been a strong supporter of the rail line and port,” the spokesperson said.

“But the government has stated clearly its environmental and rail safety concerns with the proposal to ship bulk oil by rail to Churchill.”

Reder said the federal government may have jurisdiction, but the Lac Megantic accident, which killed 47 people in Quebec last year, might shift the balance of legislative authority when it comes to shipping oil.

As an example of the impact of Lac Megantic, the federal government announced in December that crude oil is a highly dangerous commodity and will introduce stricter safety measures for rail shipments.

“People are aware of this now,” he said.

“That could have the effect of having new regulations … to (give) municipalities and provinces more power.”

Rail shipments should be re-routed to an alternate line if they present significant risks to a region or community, Reder said.

“Re-route. Don’t send this oil through Churchill.”

He said shipping oil through Churchill is an outlandish concept for a long list of reasons.

The community’s economy depends heavily on tourists who visit the community to see polar bears. However, Reder said an expanded petroleum industry would spew additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which warms the Arctic Ocean and puts polar bears at risk.

“Far and away the biggest concern (with shipping oil to Churchill) is that we would build more fossil fuel infrastructure, which keeps us on a path of running our country and civilization for 10 years longer than we need to on oil,” he said.

“It can’t be said too strongly how insane the plan is to take great risk to increase fossil fuel extraction.”

As well, Reder said the Hudson Bay rail line is unsuitable for oil shipments. He traveled to Churchill by rail in the fall, and there were multiple derailments on the track or at the port during his stay.

“Four days of travel and four accidents on that line,” he said.

“People tell you how bad this track is. You can see how bad this track is. It’s obvious why there are problems.”

He said there is also the risk of an oil spill in Hudson Bay, which would be nearly impossible to clean up.

Skimmer ships, booms and dispersants are used to contain and mitigate oil spills in warmer climates, but those maritime resources don’t exist on Hudson Bay. Even if they were in place, he added, it’s unlikely such strategies would work.

“Skimmer ships don’t work because they don’t work in waves and they don’t work on ice,” he said.

“We can’t handle a spill up there.”

Sinclair Harrison, president of the Hudson Bay Route Association (HBRA), which promotes grain shipments through Churchill, said environmental groups rail against all forms of economic development.

“If some people had their way, nothing would happen. There would be no wind turbines, no oil production, no land disturbed,” he said.

“You can’t run a country or province that way. There has to be a balance between commercial activity and the environment.”

He said the HBRA supports shipping because it would benefit the rail line and the port.

“Anything that produces more commerce on the track, naturally you can spend more money on the track,” he said.

Petroleum is already shipped to Churchill by rail, he added.

“There is a tank farm in Churchill right now. Refined fuel has been railed up there for years. There’s never been an incident on the rail with refined product,” he said.

“There’s been significant work done on the track over the last 10 to 12 years. It’s in much better shape.”

Transport Canada permits shipping out of the Port of Churchill from July 15 to Oct. 31. The HBRA would like to see the season extended to allow shipments into November.

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