If you approach town from the south in the waning days of September, it’s easy to understand why people settled here. The leaves are changing colors gloriously. The physical landscape, a rough crescent between a long glacial lake and the surrounding hills, is idyllic.
Which makes the contrast all the more jarring when you drive down a hill into the historic center of Lac-Megantic.
One night in July 2013, a runaway train of tank cars full of oil from North Dakota derailed near a nightclub in this community of 6,000 people not far from the Maine border. The conflagration that followed killed 47 people and sent oil into the sewers, the soil, and the lake. Two years later, most of the former downtown remains a fenced-off moonscape.
It’s a 22-acre reminder of the dangers of moving oil by rail — and of improvising a transportation system for a fuel that people are sure to keep using.
“It’s first of all a human tragedy, with human losses, and we can’t forget that,” Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said Tuesday, through an interpreter. It was also an environmental disaster. And economically, she added, “the community is just starting to breathe again and starting to get back onto their feet.”
The energy boom in Canada and the United States has put enormous pressure on a makeshift network of trains, pipelines, trucks, and boats. The oil industry’s push for new pipelines — most notably the Keystone XL, which would help connect the Alberta tar sands with oil refineries in Texas — has alarmed climate-change activists.
Especially when controlling emissions through carbon taxes and cap-and-trade schemes looks politically impossible, blocking new fossil-fuel infrastructure feels morally satisfying. But in doing so, the part of the American political spectrum that might otherwise lead the drive for greater safety is essentially opting out of the discussion.
With gusto, Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley have denounced the Keystone project. Under pressure from her more liberal rivals, Hillary Clinton recently came out against it as well.
When right-wing moralists fulminate against drug abuse or teenage sex, politicians and activists on the left readily embrace the principle of harm reduction. Because certain behaviors are bound to happen, it’s better to mitigate their consequences by distributing condoms and clean needles. That same logic should be applied in the energy sector, where renewables aren’t growing fast enough to replace fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, the political arguments on either side of the Keystone XL issue haven’t helped. To a recession-weary public, proponents touted the project as a job creator. But transporting oil over pipelines instead of rails may eliminate jobs instead of creating them. That isn’t always a bad outcome, since train accidents, including the Lac-Megantic disaster, often involve significant human error.
Opponents, meanwhile, presumed that blocking the project would keep oil in the ground, and it hasn’t. Instead, it’s moved through other pipelines and through a rail system that the US government has often struggled to oversee.
The complexity of the issue shows in Clinton’s seeming unease with her own position. After equivocating for months, she declared her opposition to Keystone amid the media frenzy over the pope’s arrival in the United States. The next day, she issued a far more nuanced energy plan that stressed the need to upgrade faulty pipelines and to prevent train accidents.
The need for the latter is evident in Lac-Megantic, which developed around a railroad bend and is now rebuilding its downtown. Musi-Café, the ill-fated hangout where many victims were on the night of the accident, has reopened on a brand new commercial strip just outside the disaster zone.
On temporary display in a field nearby are dozens of commemorative sculptures, from artists across Quebec, that will be installed around town once the reconstruction is complete. The area around Lac-Megantic is known for its starry skies and its observatory, so organizers of the project chose a dreamy astral theme rather than a somber one. “They wanted something magic for the people,” says sculptor Martine-Carole Gagnon, whose statue of a girl holding an umbrella makes cheeky reference to a meteor shower.
In the meantime, residents face a more hard-headed reckoning. The train tracks through town have been upgraded, and a moratorium on petroleum shipments through Lac-Megantic expires in January. Roy-Laroche, nicknamed the “granite lady” for her toughness after the disaster, expresses confidence in new safety measures — and points out that oil isn’t the only hazardous material that poses a danger. She also notes that the possibility of a derailment will never disappear, which is why she and others hope to see a rail bypass built around the town.
On the US side of the border, we’re avoiding such open-eyed calculations about risk. We’d rather stand nobly on principle, and let a dicey situation sort itself out.