Port of Churchill chooses grain over oil

After a year of controversy and derailments, OmniTRAX Canada has abandoned its scheme to transport crude oil through the Port of Churchill.

The company announced Friday it will “suspend its plans to ship crude oil for the foreseeable future,” because grain shipments through the port are up.

“Our decision to suspend crude by rail was based in part that grain shippers were willing to commit long-term orders in contracts of over 700,000 metric tonnes due to the market’s overall growth,” Merv Tweed, OmniTRAX Canada president, said in a release. “Following last year’s record crop, we’re preparing for another strong shipping season.”

Tweed said conversations with the Manitoba government influenced the company’s decision. Provincial transportation minister Steve Ashton said the idea of shipping oil across northern permafrost is too “risky,” because a rail spill could harm the boreal forest or tundra ecosystems in the region, particularly on a rail line with a history of derailments.

OmniTrax had to shut down service on the line, which runs from The Pas, Man., to Churchill, for several weeks in June after 13 grain cars derailed south of Churchill.

In 2013, OmniTrax announced its intent to transport Alberta light crude oil through the Port of Churchill during the 2014 shipping season.

Several environmental groups campaigned against the concept. They argued an oil spill in Hudson Bay would be nearly impossible to clean up because Canada doesn’t have the necessary skimmer ships, booms and other equipment in place.

Eric Reder, a spokesman for the Wilderness Committee, said such cleanup strategies wouldn’t work even if the maritime resources existed on Hudson Bay.

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

Instead of shipping crude, OmniTrax will focus on other opportunities to diversify its shipments through the Port of Churchill, such as wood pellets and potash.

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