Trouble filling up the tank this week? Here’s why

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There are plenty of reasons for drivers to get cranky with Mother Nature. This week, you can add “trouble fuelling up” to the list.

Dozens of gas stations across the Greater Toronto Area ran into supply issues this week — including in some cases being completely sold out — thanks to the wintry conditions on area roads.

Getting into and out of fuel storage depots, as well as the slippery, snowy road conditions around stations in tightly packed urban areas, is especially hazardous when you’re driving a tanker filled with gasoline, said Suncor spokesperson Nicole Fisher.

“We always want to make sure our drivers are safe, and because of this weather, they wouldn’t have been,” said Fisher, who wasn’t able to provide an estimate of how many of Suncor’s PetroCanada stations were affected. “There wasn’t a shortage of gasoline. This was about distribution.”

While deliveries started back up again Wednesday, not every station will be filled up instantly, Fisher added.

It’s been five years since the GTA has seen a similarly widespread rash of empty pumps, said former Liberal MP Dan McTeague, who’s now a fuel analyst at GasBuddy.com

“This doesn’t happen too often, but it happens. The last time it was this big was probably 2014,” said McTeague, who estimated roughly 140 stations across the GTA were affected. The worst-hit ones were stations in Toronto itself, McTeague said.

“Usually, it’s areas to the east and west of Toronto which get hardest hit when there’s weather like this, but this time, it was worst downtown,” said McTeague.

Busy stations usually get deliveries every two or three days, McTeague said.

The supply troubles were exacerbated by a run on gasoline as drivers tried to take advantage of pump prices which dropped to an average of 98.9 cents per litre for regular gas, the lowest the GTA has seen since October 2016, McTeague said.

Still, the situation could have been more dire.

“It would have been a lot worse if the depots or refineries had run out of gasoline, but that’s not what happened here,” said McTeague. The Toronto area is supplied by a handful of major fuel terminals, including one in Oakville and one near Keele St. and Finch Ave.

Those terminals typically have enough gasoline on-hand to survive for a while without being restocked by refineries.

“It would be a few days before they’d run out, if it came to that,” McTeague said.

It isn’t just gasoline deliveries which have been disrupted by the frigid, snowy weather across much of eastern North America. In storm-struck Michigan, auto plants and other big energy users Michigan have shut down or limited operations due to a natural gas shortage caused by a fire and frigid weather.

Eighteen factories and other facilities run by General Motors, Ford and Fiat Chrysler were affected Thursday. It’s not clear when they’ll resume normal operations.

The fire hit a Consumers Energy natural gas compressor station north of Detroit on Wednesday as record-cold temperatures swept over the region.

Elsewhere, beer delivery trucks in Milwaukee were pulled off the roads because distributors worried that the brews would freeze. In Chicago, train tracks were being deliberately set on fire by railroad crews, to avoid tracks from freezing and keep trains running.

With files from The Associated Press

Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer

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What we know about Alberta’s plan to buy thousands of oil tank cars

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In late November, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley announced that within « a few weeks » her government would unveil its plan to buy thousands of railcars to help transport the province’s oil to market. 

Eight weeks later and the provincial government is still in negotiations with railway companies and suppliers. The latest update from Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd was only to say « it’s an ongoing conversation. »

The government says it needs the cars because there’s a backlog of oil in the province and a lack of pipeline space to export it.

With few details coming from the Notley government, here’s what we know — and don’t know — about its plan.

Total cost

The government hasn’t provided an estimated cost for buying the railcars, as negotiations are ongoing. It’s difficult to hazard a guess considering how few details are known about what the government is trying to acquire.

Notley has said Alberta needs to buy as many as 7,000 tank cars to meet its goal of shipping an additional 120,000 barrels of oil a day by train. She has also said that could include about 80 locomotives, with each train pulling 100 to 120 cars.

Workers prepare to start loading a tank car at an Altex Energy terminal. (Dave Rae/CBC)

Each tank car can hold nearly 700 barrels of oil.

The province likely won’t buy the cars, but instead lease them for between three and five years, which experts say is the industry standard.

The government also wants to sign agreements with railway companies and secure capacity to load oil in Alberta and unload the trains at destinations in North America.

Railcar shortage

Finding that many tank cars may prove difficult because of a shortage throughout North America.

In the third quarter of 2018, railcar manufacturers received orders for 11,000 new tankers, according to data from the Washington-based Railway Supply Institute (RSI). About 3,000 new cars were produced in that quarter and the backlog of orders now sits at about 31,000.

The shortage of tank cars is partly the result of Canada and the U.S. both transitioning away from the old model DOT-111 tank cars, which were involved in the deadly rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Que., in 2013. The new standard is the TC-117 in Canada (DOT-117 in the U.S.), which features a thicker steel hull, thermal protection, and protective valve covers, among other safety features.

Premier Rachel Notley has said she’s disappointed with Ottawa’s lukewarm response to the province’s plan to ease oil bottlenecks by buying more railcars. (Canadian Press)

Some rail companies are also retrofitting the older tank cars to meet the new safety standards in North America.

« We’re seeing fairly strong demand over the last few quarters in terms of tank car manufacturing and retrofits, » RSI president Mike O’Malley said in an interview.

Premium price

The shortage is one reason why Alberta will likely have to pay a premium to secure the thousands of tank cars it wants.

One of North America’s largest railcar leasing companies said prices are increasing.

On a conference call with investors and analysts earlier this week, GATX executive Thomas Ellman said market lease rates for tank cars were up 25 to 50 per cent in 2018 compared to the previous year.

Another factor driving up tank car prices has been an increase in the amount of crude shipped by rail in both Canada and the U.S.

Canada set several records in 2018 for shipping oil by train. (Dave Rae/CBC)

For eight straight months, Canada’s rail system set new records for crude volumes, according to the National Energy Board. The NEB’s most recent data is for November 2018, although recent statements from CN and CP Rail indicate crude-by-rail volumes have since dropped. 

In the U.S., volumes increased to more than 20 million barrels in October, but the numbers are still lower than in 2014, when oil prices were about $100 US per barrel and more than 35 million barrels were transported by rail, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

‘Insurance’ plan

The potential impact of the Alberta government’s railcar plan is debatable. The first railcars are only expected to arrive at the end of this year, with the bulk of them arriving in 2020.

By then, Alberta should have more space to export oil by pipeline, which is cheaper and faster compared to rail. Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement project, which runs from Alberta to southern Manitoba, is expected to be complete by December 2019, just as the first of the government’s railcars are expected to roll into the province.

« If that’s the case [with Line 3], we really don’t see a need for crude-by-rail volumes to continue to grow, » said Michael Dunn, an analyst for GMP FirstEnergy.

Considering delays that pipeline projects can face, Dunn said the government likely wanted to have backup measures in place in case Enbridge wasn’t able to get the pipeline up and running on time.

« I view their purchase as basically an insurance policy. »

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Burnaby fire crews contain storage shed fire near Kinder Morgan tank facility – BC

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Fire crews have contained a fire at a commercial building at Aubrey Street and Pinehurst Drive in Burnaby, alarmingly close to the Kinder Morgan tank farm facility.

Burnaby Fire Deputy Chief Dave Samson assures local residents they are safe from danger, and there are no immediate concerns for those in the area. There are no reported injuries.

Samson tells Global News that crews were called out to 7742 Aubrey Street at 7:53 p.m. to a second alarm fire at a commercial structure – a large storage garage – situated about 400 feet away from the Kinder Morgan tank farm. A home nearby the structure was not damaged.

Samson says the main concern for firefighters was keeping the fire contained and from spreading to surrounding forest.

At the height of the blaze, there were 34 firefighters on scene and eleven trucks on hand to battle the blaze. Firefighters were challenged by difficult access to the site itself as well as water supply issues, due to low water pressure because of the the blaze’s location at the top of the mountain. Crews got around that challenge by creating a water supply structure to relay pump.

Assistant Fire Chief Barry Mawhinney tells Global the contents of the structure are not known for certain – possibly some chemicals – and a propane bottle is believed to have exploded as well. Firefighters limited their attack on the fire to the building’s exterior, due to the extreme heat and the danger of building collapse.

The bright orange flames, sparks and plumes of smoke could be seen for quite a distance, causing some justifiable alarm to nearby residents because of the proximity to the Kinder Morgan facility.

Fire officials say a long operation lays ahead putting out hot spots and cleaning up, as well as with the ensuing investigation.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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This tank arsenal near Oshawa is a secret the military museum wants shared

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It is the coldest day of the year so far, and I am doing my best General Patton imitation as I stand on the commander’s chair of a tank, popping my head out of the turret as we patrol the frigid tundra of Oshawa.

Despite my best attempt at faking it as a “tough guy in the army,” it is clear I am a lot closer to Mash’s Radar O’Reilly than Rambo, as my hands feel frostbite setting in while I excitedly try to record a smartphone video on my ride in a Leopard 1A5 tank at the Ontario Regiment RCAC Museum.

Star reporter Raju Mudhar rides along on a tank at the Ontario Regiment RCAC Museum in Oshawa on Dec. 7. The museum has the largest collection of operational vehicles in North America.
Star reporter Raju Mudhar rides along on a tank at the Ontario Regiment RCAC Museum in Oshawa on Dec. 7. The museum has the largest collection of operational vehicles in North America.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

I thought a childhood obsessed with G.I. Joe, countless hours playing shooter games on various video game consoles and an excellent knowledge of Hollywood action movies would prepare me for what would be a quick joy ride in an actual tank. I was dead wrong. It was way better than I could have imagined and an absolutely awesome thrill ride.

Jokingly described as “the best kept military secret in southwestern Ontario,” the Ontario Regiment RCAC Museum is also known colloquially as the “Tank Museum,” as it has the largest collection of operational historical military vehicles in North America, including two M4 Shermans, American M60s, the Soviet BMP1, German-built Leopard — which was designed by Porsche — and many more.

The museum hosts and organizes “Tank Weekends” and offers other experiences that let people take a spin in this behemoths.

Not far from the Oshawa Executive Airport, the museum has a small building with historical displays, replicas and information. It is when you walk out into the large warehouse space, called the Military Vehicle Conservation Centre, where it is really breathtaking as there are so many vehicles sandwiched in together, with so many tanks, armoured personnel carriers, vintage motorcycles and other vehicles.

“We have over 80 vehicles that are operational, and probably about 20 or 30 that are prime candidates to be restored,” says Matt Rutledge, operations manager, “We’ve got Canadian vehicles, British, Soviet, German and more.”

It’s not just tanks, as Rutledge points to a Chevrolet Radio van from the Second World War. “That was built in Oshawa by General Motors. Serial number 001, so it was the first one off the line of that particular vehicles type. This area really tells the story of World War II, which includes the local Oshawa General Motors story, but also of the British Commonwealth in general.”

Rutledge is one of two full-time employees at the museum, but there are more than 140 volunteers who help repair and maintain the vehicles. Although keeping them running is no easy task. The majority of the tanks work on diesel, and while most do not run in the winter, as salt and the elements cause more wear and tear — the museum is much more active in the spring and summer — they all have to be turned on and made sure they are functioning.

“Listen, it is fun to drive these things, although it’s not easy,” says Rich Bennett, who is in charge of maintenance of the vehicles at the museum. “But the real reason I do this is because you are literally working on a pieces of living history.”

In terms of finding parts, it is an accredited Canadian Armed Forces Museum, so they can get CAF parts from the service, but it’s not so simple for international vehicles.

“There lots of parts in Europe, because obviously lots of stuff was shipped during the war,” Bennett says. “But if we can’t find a part, we mill it or make it. We’ve got a whole machine shop in the back, with lathes, mills, presses and all that stuff, so we take a piece of metal and recreate it.”

Bennett is my chauffeur today, and leads me through the process of climbing up and getting into the Leopard. He says when it gets moving it will sort of feel like being on a boat, as I will sway side to side, and the tank’s treads mean I will feel just about every piece of terrain. Half my body pokes out the top of the tank, as I am standing on the commander’s chair for most of the ride, surveying the horizon as the tanks motors along.

Later on, Bennett takes me through the tank innards, explaining the positions of the crew, and while he jokes he’s over six feet tall, and this tank is one he finds roomy, it still feels cramped and claustrophobic. If you need another reminder of how useless a tank crew member I’d be, and how small the space is, while climbing in I almost sprained my ankle while getting caught on some wires. Then I had a back spasm while I was just sitting in the commander’s chair as Bennett explained how the crew would load ammunition.

Despite that, I was giddy during the entire ride and tank tour.

While tanks are definitely not known for their use in espionage, it is surprising just how under the radar this institution is. Rutledge says military-philes and fans are fully aware of it, as are tank enthusiasts who play the online game World of Tanks, as every year that game holds contests and tournaments with prizes including being able to have a ride and operate the main turret. As well, if there has been a TV show or movie shot in Ontario and Eastern Canada that needs a tank, it has come from this museum and is either shot here or loaded up and sent to the set. On the day we visit, scenes for a CBC web series called Mindfudge are set to be shot.

“People don’t know it’s here. It is really Durham region’s hidden gem. We’re working to get the promotion out there in the local media, but 70 per cent of our visitors are from outside the Toronto area,” explains Rutledge.

“For example, for one of the big weekends, we had people fly in from Croatia, Australia, Italy, South Africa. They are tank enthusiasts, so they look to travel to the meccas for these vehicles.”

It’s worth it just to go and check out the vehicles, but if you want a ride the museum hosts tank weekends throughout the year, with the next one taking place Feb. 9, where they offer $20 rides in the M548 “Battle Bus” and $50 rides in the M113 Tracked Armoured Personal Carrier.

The biggest weekend of the year is going to be held on June 8-9, called the Aquino Tank Weekend, which is considered Canada’s largest military show of the year. It is named for a battle in the Second World War where 13 Canadian tanks were lost, but none of their crews died. This weekend brings in thousands of people from all over the world, and there are several staged military battles.

There are also several tank packages that start at $350 per person, and customizable four-person VIP Tank Day packages that start at $1,000, where you may be allowed to even squeeze off a blank round.

Visit ontrmuseum.ca for more information.

Raju Mudhar is a Toronto-based reporter covering popular culture at the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @rajumudhar

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