Quebec has secured enough propane to fuel its essential needs until next weekend, after the Canadian National Railway strike squeezed the province’s supply to emergency levels.
Quebec Energy Minister Jonatan Julien said the province would “repatriate” seven million litres of propane from existing tanker wagons already inside Quebec, while another shipment of about the same size was expected to arrive by rail from Edmonton.
Under current rationing, the new shipments — which increase the province’s propane reserves to about 20 million litres — should be enough to last until next Friday, he said.
Quebec’s supply of propane, 85 per cent of which is delivered by rail, has been under pressure since Tuesday, when 3,200 CN workers walked off the job over union concerns such as long working hours and dangerous working conditions due to fatigue.
“We are looking at all potential sources for relief, but if the conflict endures, we’ll have to work on elements which will become more and more complex in relation to the procurement of propane for Quebec,” Julien said.
News of the new propane supply came after the Teamsters union suggested the country’s largest railway had fabricated a propane shortage by prioritizing the shipment of other goods.
CN has not replied to the union’s accusation.
Speaking to reporters in Montreal, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said CN’s operations were running at 10 per cent of their usual level since there are not enough white-collar employees capable of conducting the trains.
Though pressure has been building for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to recall Parliament before Dec. 5 to pass back-to-work legislation, Garneau said the government continues to believe “the quickest way to resolve this is through collective bargaining. It’s a process we believe in.”
About Quebec’s shortage, CN has indicated that it “will help where it can,” he added.
“There are some 69 tanker wagons … in different parts of Quebec that have propane in them and CN said it would do its best if it gets a request to bring those tankers to the right places to provide for those propane needs,” Garneau said.
CN said it would do its best if it gets a request to bring those tankers to the right places to provide for those propane needs
Transport Minister Marc Garneau
A strike lasting until Dec. 5 could cost the economy up to $3.1 billion, and potentially up to $2.2 billion if it continues until the end of the month, TD economist Brian DePratto said in a note.
On Thursday, Premier Francois Legault said Quebec would run out of propane within four days. The province has cut daily usage of the heating fuel to 2.5 million litres from six million litres, with remaining supplies going to vulnerable essential services and farms first.
Quebec’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources said its distributors were working to put trucks on the road to a distribution point in Sarnia, Ont.
But lineups at that location forced trucks to wait between seven and eight hours yesterday, said Nathalie St-Pierre, chief executive of the Canadian Propane Association.
The shortage has created new challenges for farmers who depend on propane to heat their barns and run mobile crop dryers.
This year’s corn and soybean harvest has been particularly late due to heavy snowfall and wet conditions, with about half of Quebec’s corn crop remaining in the field. Wet grain will rot in bins within days, jeopardizing sales.
One farmer, Monique Lusignan, said she still has some propane left on her farm, but she isn’t sure how long it will last.
“If (the strike) endures too long, we’ll run out of propane and we won’t be able to dry our corn,” she said. “This year has already been pretty bad. Our corn is in the ground, we have to harvest in the snow, it’s total misery. Considering all that, (the rail workers) frankly chose their time.”
This year has already been pretty bad. Our corn is in the ground, we have to harvest in the snow, it’s total misery. Considering all that, (the rail workers) frankly chose their time
Quebec farmer Monique Lusignan
By Friday, propane supplies to Eastern Ontario farms were dwindling, too, and no fuel was going to grain dryers, said Markus Haerle, president of the Grain Farmers of Ontario.
Distributors have also told grain farmers in southern Ontario not to expect further shipments of propane for grain drying as home heating and other essential services have priority, he said.
“All available trucks are on the road and lines are getting longer and longer,” Haerle said.
In Quebec, trucking companies have so far absorbed the increase in demand, said Marc Cadieux, chief executive of the Quebec Trucking Association.
If the strike wears on for longer than a few weeks, however, “it could be detrimental to other contracts that our carriers have on regular clients,” he said.
Similarly, Ontario lacks the necessary trucking capacity to absorb the demand for fuel should the strike carry on much longer, said David Carruth, chairman of the Ontario Trucking Association. A single CN train can carry as much propane as about 400 of the specialized trucks used to ship it on roads, he said.
“The difference in the equipment needed to haul propane versus what we use to haul dry goods is like the difference between a Ferrari and a Volkswagen,” Carruth said. “We could do it short term, but not much longer.”