"There are a lot of risks and we tend to get complacent about them as time goes on and we don't have a major incident," said Warren Mabee, who teaches at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
The pipeline capacity around the country is squeezed and approving and building new lines is a contentious and slow process.
The proposed Alberta-to-Texas Keystone XL project, for example, would carry half a million barrels of crude oil per day to refineries in Texas, over a freshwater aquifer. It has caused political drama on both sides of the border.
While the debate rages and older lines become less usable, producers are turning to rail companies to meet demand. A 73-wagon locomotive operated by The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway was carrying 72 carloads of crude oil and five locomotive units when it broke away and derailed early Saturday, unleashing a string of explosions that left at least five dead, dozens missing and many more distraught in tiny Lac-MÃ©gantic.
According to recent estimates from the Canadian Railway Association, up to 140,000 carloads of crude like the train in Quebec was carrying will be transported by rail in Canada this year. That's up from only 500 carloads transported by Canadian rail in 2009. It's a slower but cheaper and more popular alternative. But Mabee said proponents of pipelines will likely use the Quebec tragedy to show it's not the safest alternative.
"This could be a way for the pipeline lobby to emphasize a point that while they've had some problems, there's not been this level of death and this level of impact," Mabee said. "This is a tragedy and tragedies can be exploited."
Paul Lacoursiere, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Sherbrooke, agrees the incident could serve as a boon for pipeline proponents, pointing to a Dec. 30, 1999 derailment and fire near Quebec City that killed two and heralded in a pipeline.
"I believe it's much safer to carry the product by pipeline," he said. "But you need a good pipeline and a good company. A good pipeline is certainly safer than a train."
While there's a gross number of how many barrels are moving by rail, good statistics are hard to come by, Mabee said. He would like to know which rails are used most often, where the oil is being moved and stored, and, in Quebec, how much crude is moved on the line where tragedy struck.
"There are some real concerns there that the public should have," he said.
NDP energy critic Peter Julian said Conservative cuts to railway inspection means the industry has essentially been watching over itself.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who inspected the damage in Lac-MÃ©gantic during a visit Sunday, wouldn't go into detail about railway safety changes.
With files from Allan Woods and The Canadian Press
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