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The Crude Oil Threat to New York State: The Capital Region as the Focus of Oil-by-Rail

By Oily Bakken and Rude Crude

In recent months, the media has carried stories about huge quantities of crude oil being brought into the Port of Albany from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota by CP Rail, where it is stored and transloaded onto barges or tanker ships to be moved on to distant refineries. This petroleum is highly flammable, even explosive.

There were 11 derailments of crude oil trains in the U.S. and Canada during 2013. Three of these have resulted in huge spills, fires and explosions. One of these, in the small city of Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, resulted in 47 deaths and the obliteration of most of the downtown area of that city. The other two (Aliceville, Alabama on November 8 and Casselton, North Dakota on December 30) resulted in no deaths or injuries, but only because they occurred in rural areas.

In December of 2012, the tanker ship Stenna Primorsk, filled with 12 million gallons of crude oil (about the same amount that spilled from the Exxon Valdez), crashed into the Hudson River bed and suffered two holes in its outer hull. Fortunately, this tanker had a double hull, the inner hull was not penetrated and no oil leaked out.

In spite of this sobering accident, the state last spring issued permission for double the amount of oil to begin passing through the Port of Albany by ship. At the same time, New York’s rail lines have become a vital link in delivering millions of barrels of oil from Canadian fields.

In a December 13 article appearing in the Times Union, Brian Nearing reported on a meeting of the Albany County Local Emergency Preparedness Committee (LEPC) regarding the shipment of this crude oil in Albany. This was the first time that Global Partners, the owners of the Port of Albany facility handling this crude oil, had met with the LEPC, even though the oil has been shipped into the Port for nearly two years. No representatives of CP Rail showed up for the meeting.

LEPC Chairman, Harry Merriman stated to the TU that this crude oil was “as safe as your car in your driveway.” This is a ludicrous statement. Nearing FOILed the LEPC for records of their past meetings, plans for addressing an emergency situation resulting from this crude oil, as well as other information relevant to this matter, but these documents have not been forthcoming. One might suspect that the LEPC, and therefore emergency responders, are not prepared to meet an emergency, should it arise.

It is interesting that Mr. Merriman was so confident that Bakken crude oil is safe. When rail safety consultant Fred Millar telephoned Merriman in September, Merriman was unaware that unit trains of Bakken crude oil were coming into Albany.

A December 9 article by Capital New York reporter Scott Waldman carried a candid assessment of the situation by a DEC official. When asked if state agencies were ready to respond to a major event on the Hudson River, Dennis Farrar, chief of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Environmental Remediation Division, responded, “To be honest, I don’t know. Until we have a drill or a review of plans or an event, we really don’t know.”

According to Waldman’s article, many of the officials tasked with handling clean up say they are ready for any spills, including Albany Port District Commission general manager Richard Hendrick. He said port officials have already hosted week-long drills on rail car safety. Waldman quotes Hendrick as saying, “It is deemed completely safe.”

But the Port of Albany is not the only location of crude oil trains in our area. It’s important to understand that three different railroad companies are shipping Bakken crude oil through the Capital Region. The first is CP Rail (on its Delaware & Hudson subsidiary), which brings Bakken crude oil from North Dakota via the Montreal area and into the Port of Albany for storage and transloading onto tanker ships and barges destined for distant refineries.

The second railroad company is CSX, which picks up its unit crude oil trains from Warren Buffet’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe near Chicago, and brings them east by way of Buffalo to Selkirk, where the trains head south along the CSX River Line through New Jersey to a refinery near Philadelphia.

The third railroad company is Pan Am Railways (formerly Guilford Transportation Industries), which picks up its unit oil trains from CSX at Rotterdam Junction (just west of Schenectady), then heads through Mechanicville into Massachusetts and north through Maine to the Irving refinery in St. John, New Brunswick (Canada).

At present, Bakken oil trains pass through 23 counties in New York State and seven of its nine DEC Regions.

Each of these unit trains is typically 80-120 cars long. Each of the tank cars (model DOT-111 tank cars) has a maximum capacity of approximately 34,500 gallons. The safety of the tank cars used to transport this crude oil is another issue which can be discussed another time.

Global Partners, the Waltham, MA-based company bringing crude oil into the Port of Albany, now owns a 60 percent interest in Basin Transload, a company which which operates two facilities in North Dakota which load Bakken crude oil onto tank trains. The transloading facilities are approximately 195 miles apart in Columbus and Beulah, North Dakota . The Columbus facility is located along the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP Rail) and provides single line haul service to Global’s recently expanded terminal in Albany , NY . the Beulah site, which supports crude oil production efforts in the Williston Basin, is located along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) with direct long-haul service to the West Coast and Gulf Coast Markets. BNSF also interchanges Bakken crude oil trains with CSX, whose oil trains cross New York State and pass through the Capital Region.

The Bakken oil coming to the Port of Albany via CP Rail must be coming from the Columbus , ND facility. The Bakken oil being shipped on CSX is coming from Beulah, ND on Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) to Chicago , then on CSX through Selkirk to a refinery in Philadelphia .
According to the Global website, the two Global/Basin Transload facilities have a combined rail loading capacity of 160,000 barrels a day (in the U.S. and Canada, one barrel equals 42 U.S. gallons). Sometimes you will see crude oil reported in the news as gallons, and sometimes you will see it reported as barrels.

Even while the public doesn’t know if it is safe from Bakken crude oil shipments, Global Properties/Global Partners is preparing to ship another type of crude oil, bituminous crude oil from the tar sands of the Province of Alberta, Canada. This is undoubtedly the infamous tar sands crude oil from the Province of Alberta in Western Canada. Apparently, judging from information on oil spills in other parts of the U.S., this stuff is nearly impossible to clean up.

Global has submitted a last-minute application to the City of Albany Planning Board for the construction of a boiler house at Kenwood Yard, its stated purpose being to heat petroleum products so that they can be off-loaded from tank cars. The application does not state that this is crude oil or where it is coming from. But the only reason petroleum products would need to be heated in order to be off-loaded is if they are too viscous (thick) to off-load at ambient temperatures. This is likely tar sands crude oil from Alberta. Reporter Waldman has asked Global officials several times whether the heavy crude they plan to bring into Albany is tar sands crude oil, and they have refused to say. Waldman says his conclusion is that it is tar sands oil.

One wonders how it could be economical to transport crude oil from Alberta to the East Coast of the U.S. for refining. But there is indication that the tar sands oil receives an exemption from an eight percent federal excise tax. There is also an indication that tar sands oil has been exempted by the federal government from all financial responsibility in the event of a spill.

People on the West Coast have prevented the tar sands oil from going into their ports. And some of the areas between Alberta and the West Coast are opposed to having the material pass through their lands. One scenario for shipping tar sands oil east is that the crude oil would be shipped by rail from the source in northern Alberta to the western Great Lakes, then by water (cheaper than rail) to the Montreal area (CP Rail) or Buffalo (CSX), and finally by rail to the Port of Albany or to refineries on the East Coast.

Tar sands oil has been called “the world’s dirtiest oil” by some people. If you do some Googling, you will find there is already resistance to the idea of Great Lakes shipments.

The large volumes of these two types of crude oil have come about because crude oil is being pumped out of the ground faster than was ever anticipated.

The prospect of more oil being brought to the Port of Albany and through our region is alarming. We don’t know if our emergency responders are prepared to handle an emergency. And the risks associated with these crude oil shipments into Albany is being disproportionately borne by lower-income neighborhoods near to the Port. If there was ever an environmental justice issue in Albany, this is it.

Crude oil shipments may be the most important environmental issue directly affecting Albany during 2014.

 

Published in January/February 2014 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter

This page last modified January 8, 2014
Contact Save the Pine Bush at pinebush@aol.com.