Repost from The Times Union, Albany NY
[Excellent month-by-month review of CBR developments in New York’s capital region, and an excellent group of 14 photos. – RS]
Albany’s Top 10 stories: Region a hub in oil train surge
Converging lines drove growth in shipmentBy Brian Nearing, December 29, 2014
More oil trains kept a-rollin’ last year in Capital Region from the booming Bakken fields of North Dakota, where massive hydrofracking has helped drop national gasoline prices below $3 a gallon.
It was only two days into 2014 in the aftermath of a massive oil train derailment and fire in North Dakota when federal regulators warned that Bakken crude was more likely to catch fire than regular crude. And at year’s end, critics were warning that federal plans to phase out less-sturdy versions of the most common rail tankers during the next two years were too slow.
In between, massive trains pulling dozens of all-black tanker cars — carrying millions of gallons of crude and ominously called bomb trains by opponents — kept coming.
Because of its geographic location, with rail lines converging from all four directions and its access to the Hudson River, Albany has become a major oil shipping hub, which drew little public attention when the oil boom began taking shape some five years ago.
Some oil is unloaded at the port for shipment down the Hudson in barges or tankers, while other oil continues by rail either south along the Hudson River to coastal refineries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania or north along Lake Champlain to Canada.
And there are many more trains than just a couple years ago. For the first 10 months of 2014, more than 672,000 oil-filled tanker cars moved by rail in the U.S., an increase of more than 13 percent from the previous period of 2013, according to federal statistics. That was more than twice as many as the 300,000 rail oil tankers that moved for the same period in 2011.
But for part of the oil train story in Albany, 2014 will end the way it began, with the state Department of Environmental Conservation still weighing plans by an oil terminal operator at the port, Global Partners, to build a facility that heats crude oil to make it easier to pump in cold weather.
Bakken crude doesn’t have to be heated in the cold, leading many to conclude Global wants to begin accepting trains carrying Canadian tar sands oil, a thicker crude that must be heated to be pumped in the cold. Global has never said either way. DEC extended the comment period on the project eight times amid growing community opposition.
Global and another terminal operator, Houston-based Buckeye Partners, have DEC permission to ship 2.8 billion gallons of oil a year that is arriving by rail. By the end of January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo had ordered a state review of safety and spill control plans while also pressing the Obama administration to act faster to toughen rules on the burgeoning energy network.
The governor did not wait for the report to act. By February, he was touting the first rail-safety inspections at the Port of Albany and elsewhere by state and federal regulators. By year’s end, eight such inspection “blitzes” had been done involving nearly 7,400 rail cars, including more than 5,300 oil tankers, and nearly 2,700 miles of track. A total of 840 defects have been uncovered.
In March, Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy slapped a county moratorium on Global’s crude heating project. By July, as many as 42 oil trains each week — each holding more than 100 million gallons of Bakken crude — were coming into Albany from North Dakota, according to figures released by the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.
This summer, two major rail companies — CSX and Canadian Pacific — revealed information about their shipments under an emergency federal order intended to help inform local emergency workers of potential risks. CSX transports oil through 17 counties on a line that runs upstate from Lake Erie and eastward roughly along the Thruway corridor, while CP runs oil through five counties in the Capital Region and the North Country on the way from Canada.
The region can expect to see trains for a long time. By October, a Canadian Pacific official predicted increased transport of tar sands crude oil from Alberta in coming years would account for about 60 percent of the railroad’s oil revenue. That same month, the DEC rejected oil train opponents’ claims that the state had the power to immediately ban the most common type of tanker cars — called DOT-111s — from entering the port loaded with flammable oil.
Also in October, Global quietly withdrew plans before the DEC for a new oil terminal facility on the Hudson River in New Windsor, Orange County, so that oil could be moved from massive crude oil tanker trains onto vessels to continue downriver to coastal refineries. The company also announced it had voluntarily stopped using the oldest, least sturdy models of DOT-111s.
By December, officials in North Dakota announced new safety rules on Bakken crude oil shipments aimed at reducing its potential explosiveness, but the limits would not affect about 80 percent of oil arriving daily in Albany, leading oil train opponents to criticize the rules as almost meaningless.
And it looks like the surge of oil trains will continue to grow. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, two refineries in Linden, N.J., and Philadelphia are adding crude-by-rail terminals to handle up to 8.8 million gallons a day of incoming shipments.
For oil trains from North Dakota and Canada to reach these refineries, the trip would have to pass through Albany.