As I write this, there is oil spilling from a CP Rail derailment in Saskatchewan. We don’t know the full impact yet, but this follows another CP spill on northern Ontario last month when the company first said that the spill was only 4 barrels, but the next day said it was 400 barrels.

Moving oil by rail is in the political spotlight thanks to the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. Speaking in New York last week, Prime Minister Harper argued that the US government needs to choose between moving tar sands oil by pipeline or rail, and he said that pipelines are safer.

That is nonsense: the Canadian government is basically saying we have to pick our poison, while hoping no one notices that there are healthier options on the menu. Yet it does raise an interesting question: Why does the federal government allow rail companies to move crude oil in tanker cars that it knows are unsafe?

Tanker cars that leak when derailed

Transport Canada considers crude oil to be a “dangerous good” and thus can only be transported in certain types of rail tanker cars. Diluted bitumen, according to Greenpeace's correspondence with Transport Canada, “is NOT a regulated dangerous good, so the requirement for the selection and use of a prescribed rail car would not apply for this product.”

Over two thirds of the cars in the continental tanker fleet that are allowed to carry dangerous goods are classified as “DOT 11”. This type of tanker car has a “high incidence of tank failures during accidents” according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and as prone “to release product at derailment and impact” according to the Canadian Transportation Safety Board.

According to the U.S. investigation of a 2009 CN Rail derailment and fire:

“During a number of accident investigations over a period of years, the NTSB has noted that DOT-111 tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents… DOT-111 tank cars make up about 69 percent of the national tank car fleet. This accident demonstrates the need for extra protection such as head shields, tank jackets, more robust top fittings protection, and modification of bottom outlet valves on DOT-111 tank cars used to transport hazardous materials. The NTSB concludes that if enhanced tank head and shell puncture-resistance systems such as head shields, tank jackets, and increased shell thicknesses had been features of the DOT-111 tank cars involved in this accident, the release of hazardous materials likely would have been significantly reduced, mitigating the severity of the accident.”

Canadian authorities are well aware of this problem. A 2009 investigation by the federal Transportation Safety Board [correction: this report is from 1994, not 2009] of a separate CN derailment and spill stated bluntly:

“The susceptibility of 111A tank cars to release product at derailment and impact is well documented. The transport of a variety of the most hazardous products in such cars continues.”

Derailments are not uncommon. According to Emile Therien, Past President of the Canada Safety Council, there were 103 derailments in 2011 on “main tracks” (i.e. the lines between stations and or terminals) and 485 derailments on “non-main tracks” (mainly in yards or terminals).

New tanker cars have to meet a higher standard, but the rail industry has resisted pressure to upgrade their existing fleet, which still carries the majority of liquid hazardous cargo like crude oil. The NTSB has also noted that by combining DOT-111 cars with other, safer, tank cars reduces the safety benefits of the new tankers.

Rapid increase in the amount of oil being moved by rail

With Canada’s export pipelines increasingly clogged, the oil industry is turning to rail as an alternative way to get their product to market. Though still a relatively small proportion of total oil moved, it is growing fast. According to data from the National Energy Board, the amount of oil exported on rail went from nothing in 2008 to 2 per cent of exports in 2012, jumping ten-fold between 2011 and 2012 alone.

All projections are that moving oil by rail will continue to increase dramatically, though rail transport infrastructure can’t accommodate the projected increase in tar sands output without major new investments in new rail lines and tanker cars.

Will the federal government act to protect communities from crude oil being spilled from rail cars?

So the question is: if the Prime Minister is concerned over the safety of moving oil by rail, will he require companies moving hazardous products like crude oil or bitumen (and other toxic products) to avoid using DOT-111 tanker cars? Or is he willing to cut corners on safety in order to get oil to market, no matter what the cost?

Update: The Canadian Transportation Safety Board has posted a detailed (and depressing) history of their fruitless attempts over the last 9 years to address the well-known "safety deficiency" of the type 111A tanker car.