Recently a train derailed in the small village of Lac Mégantic in the Eastern Townships of Québec, devastating for the local community. The details are astonishing and I'd encourage you to have a look at as many sources as possible. While it has brought to the fore some rather predictable responses, the tragedy rests precariously on some important political and economic fault lines.
Blame is currently going around,
with various groups pointing to different actors and criticising their
actions. Aid relief from the federal government has allegedly been slow;
the provincial government has been accused of using this event as a
political firestarter; firefighters, engineers, and supervisors are the
subject of investigation, the role of the rail company is being
scrutinised, and the regulatory systems that govern rail transportation
are under attack.
Seemingly, these are all important
pieces of the puzzle, and will ultimately determine the trigger for the
crash as well as its larger causes. However, there seems to be minimal
attention to the reason why an event like this is even taking place, and
it is rather unsurprising taken in the context of larger Canadian
political and economic issues.
The oil sector in Canada is a major cause of the problem. The transportation of oil by rail has increased 280 times in the past five years. While the Tar Sands are seen as a vast fountain of wealth
for Canada, they are useless on their own. Oil extracted from the Tar
Sands needs to be properly processed, and it is for precisely this
reason that the governments of Alberta and Canada have worked so
tirelessly to establish new pipeline deals. Crude oil would then be sent
either to China (via the Northern Gateway Pipeline) or to the United States (via the Keystone XL Pipeline) in order to be processed.
However, there has been an incredible outpouring of support for groups that oppose these projects,
namely because they oppose the Tar Sands. Where in years past people
demanded that the Tar Sands be closed, the rallying cries now are that
pipeline projects be stopped in their tracks. They have become significant public relations controversies
given the high risks and costs, though all the while production has
steadily increased in the Tar Sands. An increasing amount of oil has
been sent by rail to processing plants in New Brunswick.
In order to get there, oil is sent through prime agricultural land and
densely populated regions of central and eastern Canada. Places like Lac
The Tar Sands have a massive effect on
the Canadian economy, leading various governments to make decisions
about fiscal issues such as taxes and services. Domestic policy in
Canada is quite strikingly predicated on the Tar Sands. Decisions about
whether or not scientists should be able to criticise the oil industry or whether corporations are to be held accountable and transparent are part of the grip that the Tar Sands has on Canadian society. Now rail transportation can be added to the equation.
perhaps most interesting is the fact that the Tar Sands were a
significant part of the NDP's attack on the government after Mulcair was
selected as the new leader. Mulcair argued that Canada, by virtue of
having invested so heavily in the Tar Sands, had forsaken the rest of the Canadian economy. This rationale picked up serious momentum until it was pointed out that Quebec, which is the base for the NDP's support, was reliant on transfer payments from the Tar Sands.
cries of Dutch Disease fell silent, but sadly the money that is pumped
into governments across Canada from dirty oil have started people to ask
a new question. Is it worth it? While financially Canada may seem to
need the oil sands, the idea of externalised costs
is striking. Concerns about who will pay for the rebuilding of the
levelled village, how victims will be compensated, how the oil will be
cleaned up, and what happens to the drinking water are now the dominant
concerns of people who, for the first times in their lives, have been
meaningfully affected by the Tar Sands.
It's a long distance from the advertisements that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers have created, espousing the wondrous economic and social benefit of the Tar Sands for Québec.
Presumably time will tell and people will hopefully not vote with their
wallets on this pressing question for the future of Canada.