Quebec running out of propane as CN strike chokes off supply

Quebec is poised to run out of propane within four days as the ongoing strike at Canadian National Railway chokes off supply, creating an “emergency” situation for hospitals, farms and nursing homes, Premier Francois Legault said.

The province’s dwindling propane reserve, 85 per cent of which is supplied by rail, comes as the work stoppage by 3,200 CN conductors, train and yard workers continues.

Speaking to reporters in Quebec City, Legault urged the federal government to “accelerate negotiations” between the Teamsters union and the company and if necessary, to pass back-to-work legislation ahead of Parliament’s return on Dec. 5.

“What I’m saying is we cannot afford a strike for many days,” Legault said. “So I think we have to be open to a special law. So I am asking the opposition parties in Ottawa to support Mr. Trudeau if we cannot conclude an agreement with the union soon.”

Quebec has already begun rationing its remaining propane reserve of 12 million litres and is trying find trucks to bring more of the fuel into the province, Legault said. Daily usage has been cut to 2.5 million litres from a typical six million litres.

The reserve will go to hospitals and retirement homes first, as well farmers who depend on propane to dry grains and heat facilities.

Talks with CN representatives were ongoing, Teamsters spokesperson Christopher Monette said Thursday afternoon. However “no progress” has been made on any of the union’s concerns about long hours and dangerous working conditions due to fatigue, he said.

Transportation Minister Marc Garneau, who previously urged the parties to continue negotiations, met with ministerial colleagues yesterday to discuss how to further address the issue, the ministry said in an emailed statement.

Petroleum producers, miners, chemical firms and steelmakers are among those who have warned of severe supply-chain disruption and economic damage should the strike carry on.

We have customers asking ‘Am I going to have propane to heat my home or to supply the facility I’m running, whether it’s a hospital or a water treatment plant?’

Nathalie St-Pierre, CEO, Canadian Propane Association

About 92 per cent of Canada’s propane is extracted from natural gas plants in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. With no pipelines to carry the fuel into Quebec, the province is particularly reliant on rail transportation from supply hubs in the Prairies and in Sarnia, Ont., said Nathalie St-Pierre, chief executive of the Canadian Propane Association.

“We’re very concerned with the stoppage when it comes to the farmers,” she said. “We also have customers calling and asking ‘Am I going to have propane to heat my home or to supply the facility I’m running, whether it’s a hospital or a water treatment plant?’ ”

In a statement, Quebec’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources said its distribution partners were working to put trucks on the road to the Sarnia supply point — which is serviced entirely by CN rail lines.

Lineups lasting up to six hours had already been reported at that location, St-Pierre said.

“Quebec has serious issues but Ontario is starting to have some issues, too,” she said.

The propane shortage compounds the challenges facing Quebec and Ontario grain farmers, who are already grappling with the fallout from the CN strike. The labour disruption at the country’s second-largest railroad struck during their most important shipping period and at the tail end of a particularly difficult harvest season. Half of Quebec’s corn crop — estimated at 850,000 acres and worth about $700 million — has yet to be harvested because of heavy snow and wet conditions, said Benoit Legault, general manager for the Grain Producers of Quebec. About 10 per cent of Quebec’s soybean harvest — covering roughly the same acreage and valued at $500 million — also remains in the field.

“If you can’t dry the crops you can’t harvest them,” he said. “You can’t pile up wet corn, so they are leaving it in the field. We’re at a complete standstill.”

In Ontario, 30 per cent of 2.2 million acres of corn remains in the field, along with 10 per cent of the soybean crop, estimated at three million acres, said Markus Haerle, president of the Ontario Grain Farmers.

“There are already major delays loading propane in Sarnia and we’re only a few days into this strike,” he said. “Without propane to run the dryers, the corn and soybeans will spoil in the bins within days. The situation is getting more severe by the hour.”

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