The Urethane Blog

CN Rail Strike Update

What is really going on with the CN Rail strike, the propane shortage and Quebec’s ’emergency’

A Teamsters Canada union worker pickets against Canadian National Railway in Brampton, Ont., Nov. 19, 2019.Mark Blinch/Reuters/File

Parts of the country are facing propane shortages as a strike among railway workers causes the transportation system to grind to a halt. This means that some farmers are struggling to dry their grain. It also means, in Quebec, the government is worrying that hospitals and retirement homes are going to run out of the fuel. The Post’s Tyler Dawson explains the situation.

That’s not great, what’s happened?

Canadian National Railway workers are on strike, as of Tuesday. Some 3,000 of them. The sticking point seems to be working conditions. The union says it’s unsafe; CN disagrees. They’ve been in negotiations for months.

But now they’re on strike, so whatever’s being moved on CN tracks is not moving at the same rate.

As it happens, 1,800 locomotive engineers and 600 supervisors can cross picket lines. The Teamsters union said Friday they think CN might be forcing a shortage by throttling rail shipments.

“We wonder if CN is choosing not to ship goods like propane in order to manufacture a crisis and force back-to-work legislation,” said Lyndon Isaak, president of the union, according to Bloomberg.

Why does this matter for propane?

Some 85 per cent of the propane used in Quebec is supplied by rail. So when the rail workers go on strike, the propane isn’t moving. Which means Quebec’s reserves are dwindling, even a few days into the strike. On Thursday, Premier François Legault called it an “emergency” for the province. He said Quebec keeps 12 million litres of propane in reserve, and uses about six million litres per day. Which means two days of propane, in theory. But rationing has begun, media reports said, bringing daily usage down to 2.5 million litres per day.

So how many days until it’s all gone?

Jonatan Julien, the minister of energy, announced Friday a train from western Canada will arrive by Monday with 20 million litres, and that would be sufficient, atop the existing reserves, to carry through to Thursday.

Priority one would be health industries. There have been some concerns about the supply of propane for hospitals and retirement homes, as well as for farmers to dry grain. But, also, Legault said Quebec is attempting to find trucks to bring the needed supplies of propane into the province.

Really? Why propane?

Good question! Hospitals are powered with a variety of other fuels. Roger Holliss, the director of engineering at St. Mary’s General Hospital in Kitchener and president of the Canadian Healthcare Engineering Society, said natural gas is probably the most common (though he cautioned his expertise was mainly in regards to his own hospital).

Diesel is “often the dominant fuel for emergency generators,” said Holliss, but propane is used sometimes too, and for cooking.

“We only use propane for pilot lights/starters on our main boilers. Therefore I don’t need to carry much propane in reserve as my consumption of propane is very low,” wrote Holliss in an email. “For other hospitals, particularly more rural hospitals, this would be quite different.”

In Alberta, hospitals are powered by electricity, with diesel, usually, being the backup fuel. “They would have reserve tanks that could run the generator for at least 72 hours,” said Alberta Health spokesperson Sabrina Atwal in an email.

Trains sit in the yard at the CN Rail Brampton Intermodal Terminal on Nov. 19, 2019. The Teamsters union questions if CN is “choosing not to ship goods like propane in order to manufacture a crisis.” Mark Blinch/Reuters/File

So why does Quebec use propane?

Contrary to what’s been reported, Quebec doesn’t actually use propane as the main source of energy in either hospitals or retirement homes, explained Marie-Claude Lacasse, a spokesperson for the ministry of health.

It uses hydro-electric power. But propane is the backup power in some hospitals, she said, and in some retirement homes.

“It’s mainly used in the kitchen and for some lab activities,” said Lacasse.

It can also be used for washing laundry.

“For now, we’re not talking about a crisis in the hospitals or in Quebec,” she said. “None of that.”

How is this news being received in the West?

Unsurprisingly, Albertans are like: Hey, you could build a pipeline. Said Premier Jason Kenney: “You could actually ship it in by pipeline. We think our friends in Quebec should understand obviously the danger, potential danger, of rail shipments.”

Other politicians, meanwhile, are talking about back-to-work legislation that would force rail workers back on the job.

Can propane even be distributed by pipeline?

Nathalie St-Pierre, the head of the Canadian Propane Association, says propane can be moved in a pipeline as a natural gas liquid. When transported by truck and rail, it’s in the form of a gas.

Much of the natural gas liquids come from Alberta, and are transported via pipeline to Sarnia, Ont., where they are processed into ethane, butane and propane.

“In Quebec there’s some local production, but the rest is mostly by rail,” said St-Pierre. “Ontario east, you’d have more rail, and the rest is a lot more pipelines.”

About 100,000 litres of propane can be carried in one rail car, she said. About 30 per cent of Quebec’s propane is used in agriculture.

In the end, are old people really going to start dying in retirement homes and hospitals because of this propane shortage?

It’s possible that when Albertans said “let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark” they didn’t actually mean it literally. The announcement Friday that there will be reserves enough to get through the week is likely good news for everyone.

What is really going on with the CN Rail strike, the propane shortage and Quebec’s ’emergency’