Crude oil trains have been traversing Maine since May 2012, when the first shipments from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota began rolling to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, 2,435 miles away.
New technologies and global demand have led energy companies to develop large petroleum reserves in the upper Plains States and in Alberta. But strong opposition by environmental activists has stalled the construction of new pipelines to move the oil to North American refineries, and that has created an opportunity for freight railroads.
But the new activity also carries some risk.
Last March, a Pan Am Railways train carrying 445,000 gallons of crude oil derailed in Mattawamkeag. The accident happened within 300 feet of the Penobscot River, but very little oil leaked from the tanker cars, and crews were able to transfer the rest without incident.
Saturday’s accident in Quebec is likely to add a new dimension to the ongoing dispute over transporting crude oil through Maine. On June 27, 30 people set up a wooden barricade in an attempt to block a Pan Am train carrying crude oil through Fairfield. Six were arrested.
On Saturday, one of the protesters reacted to news of the Quebec disaster.
“It’s devastating,” said Meaghan LaSala, an organizer with 350 Maine, a group concerned about climate change. “It’s also exactly what we were afraid could happen in Maine, or any community along the routes where crude is headed all across the country.”
The group is opposed to burning heavy crude oil from the so-called tar sands in Alberta because the added carbon emissions will speed up climate change. But 350 Maine also is fighting the domestic production of oil from hydraulic fracturing, what opponents call “fracking.”
LaSala also said that the Quebec rail accident doesn’t suggest to her that it’s safer to move crude oil through pipelines, rather than rail cars.
“There’s just no safe way to move this stuff,” she said.
LaSala’s view was echoed by Judy Berk, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
“Pipeline spills are much larger spills,” she said, noting they are under higher pressure and move greater volumes than rail cars.
“Both rail and pipelines have their drawbacks, which is why we need to wean ourselves off oil,” Berk said.
The accident was being watched closely in Maine by those who follow the rail industry, including Chop Hardenbergh, editor of Atlantic Northeast Rails & Ports.
The route of the train would have taken it through Jackman to Brownville Junction, where the cars would likely be picked up by a locomotive from New Brunswick Southern Railway, he said.
He cautioned against jumping to conclusions on what triggered the explosion, noting the proximity of propane tanks and possible sources of ignition. But he said the blast is likely to prompt further examination of how to move crude oil safely.
“It’s going to give the entire North American continent pause,” Hardenbergh said. “I don’t think this is a Maine issue. It’s a national issue.”
Over time, it’s also possible that the current flow of crude oil moving through Maine on rail cars will ebb. TransCanada Corp. announced earlier this year that it is considering converting a natural gas pipeline that runs from Alberta to Quebec to carry crude oil. It would then expand the pipeline to Irving in Saint John, Canada’s largest oil refinery. That would move the oil flow north of Maine’s border, through New Brunswick.
Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: