Due to a massive increase in the movement of crude oil by rail in the past few years, communities across the country are facing the daunting prospect of becoming part of the oil industry’s infrastructure.
In Pittsburg, Calif., there is strong opposition to a proposed rail facility slated to bring in upwards of 242,000 barrels of Bakken crude daily. The state’s draft environmental review finds “significant and unavoidable risks of air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, spills and accidents,” justifying resident’s concerns.
Meanwhile, Albany, N.Y., has quietly become home to increased oil shipments without any environmental review. A rail facility is currently receiving between 20 and 25 percent of the Bakken crude from North Dakota. As Trisha Curtis, an analyst at the Energy Policy Research Foundation, puts it, “Albany has become a big hub.” This has led to local residents referring to Albany as “Houston on the Hudson.”
In a victory for local residents, earlier this week New York’s environment agency announced it would require Global, the company proposing a heating facility for heavy crude at the Port of Albany, to disclose the source of the oil.
Global is proposing a facility that would be able to heat bitumen, a heavy crude oil from the tar sands, which would enable the company to transfer the oil from rail cars to ships that would sail down the Hudson. Tar sands oil, while not explosive like the Bakken oil, is much more environmentally damaging, especially when spilled in water, where it sinks to the bottom and is difficult to clean up.
On Monday, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the agency that grants the permits required for the oil operations, wrote a letter to Global, notifying the company that the public comment period on its application has been extended and requiring Global to answer a series of questions, including where the oil will originate. The letter also noted the company’s earlier permits to transport oil at the Port of Albany are under review.
The DEC had previously decided that no environmental impact statement was required for the permit that allowed Global to start bringing 1.8 billion gallons of oil a year into the Port of Albany by rail. The department’s initial review of the proposal to add a heating facility for heavy crude resulted in another decision that there was no need for an environmental review.
Global was not required to inform the City of Albany when the company applied to the state for a permit to expand its operations to process 1.8 billion gallons of oil a year. Dominic Calsalaro, an Albany common council member at the time, said he learned about it after the fact, “like everyone else, by reading the newspaper.” Calsalaro has since been active in urging the DEC to conduct a full environmental review and has also said the city receives no economic benefit from this increased oil traffic.
Once residents learned what was happening, they were quick to organize and demand answers. In January, Albany resident Sandy Steubing spearheaded the formation of a group called People of Albany United for Safe Energy (PAUSE).
“There's something wrong with our democracy when 200 rail cars, which can explode at the light of a match, are allowed to travel through Albany every day,” Steubing said. “The DEC and the federal government have allowed this to happen through lax or non-existent regulations, while Global and Big Oil make their billions at the expense of the taxpayer. Meanwhile the mayor, the county and the people do not want these bomb trains anywhere near us.”
Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan recently instructed the city planning board to require a full environmental review of the proposed boiler facility. In response, Global withdrew its plans to build a new facility and now says it will put the boilers in an existing building, eliminating the need for planning board approval.
Albany county executive Dan McCoy issued a moratorium on the expansion of the existing oil transfer facilities until a public health study is completed. McCoy noted that the proposed expansion could create a “condition detrimental to the public health and safety of the residents of Albany County.”
It is unclear whether the efforts by Sheehan and McCoy will stop this project. Earthjustice has notified the DEC that the organization plans to file a lawsuit challenging the department’s decision not to require an environmental review. The department has said it is currently reviewing that decision.
The current battle in Albany is likely one that will be repeated as more communities try to protect themselves from the risks of tar sands. South Portland, Maine, is also attempting to ban tar sands from its port and is extending its current moratorium on tar sands for another six months. In Seattle, the city council recently voted for a moratorium on new oil train terminals in Washington. However, when it comes to moving oil by rail, affected communities are learning they have very little control over what happens, as it is federal agencies that have the power to regulate rail transport.
Various state and local authorities have little oversight and virtually no awareness of the transport of oil by rail, as exemplified in California recently. Gordon Schremp, senior fuels specialist at the California Energy Commission, responded to a question about oil by rail shipments in California by stating, “We don't have any of those [oil by rail] facilities operating in California.”
He was wrong. And, when someone in his position is unaware of the oil that is being moved by rail through his state, it shines a light on how little involvement local agencies and municipalities have when it comes to approvals to move great quantities of crude oil through their communities.
Image: Albany oil protest by Justin Mikulka