FREDERICTON - The derailment in Quebec of a train carrying crude destined for the Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick is raising questions about the security of Atlantic Canada's energy supply, with one expert saying it highlights the need to reduce the region's reliance on oil.
Larry Hughes, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax who studies energy issues, said he is concerned the disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que., will be used to help advance a proposal to ship oil through a pipeline from Alberta to the refinery in Saint John, N.B., on the premise that would be safer.
"There have been a spate of accidents moving oil products by rail and there have been pipeline accidents too," Hughes said Monday.
"Rather that bringing (oil) here for the longer term, how can we get off of it? That's what we need to be asking ourselves."
Hughes said if plans for a west-to-east pipeline were to forge ahead, it would tie the region's energy supply to a 50-year investment that could mute environmental concerns.
"If we had a pipeline, the argument would be we have to continue using the oil because we have a pipeline and need to keep it full in order to ensure someone's rate of return," he said.
New Brunswick Premier David Alward has promoted the pipeline proposal, saying it would create jobs in a region that sorely needs them.
Alward declined to comment Monday on the merits of shipping oil via pipelines versus rail.
"There will be an appropriate time and place to have all those discussions," he said in a statement. "But right now our thoughts and prayers and any support we can offer are with the people of Lac-Megantic and province of Quebec."
Hughes said it would make more sense to have tanker ships bring oil to the Irving Oil refinery from Quebec, rather than building a 1,400-kilometre extension into Saint John as TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) is considering, because that would be safer as they are required to have double hulls.
It would also give the region more flexibility to diversify its energy supply, especially as the use of alternative resources such as solar, wind and biofuels increase over the next 20 years, he said.
"Why invest in a pipeline when we could be investing longer term for various types of renewables to help us reduce our reliance on oil for things such as heating and transportation?" Hughes said.
Irving Oil has boosted its use of rail cars in recent years to import western crude. Mike Ashar, who was president of the company in December while hosting a tour of the Saint John refinery, said at the time it wanted to buy more oil from Alberta and would like to see the pipeline project become a reality.