Oil-train boom launches environmental battle

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Railroad oil tanker cars are parked next to a storage facility near the Port of Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
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A previously quiet increase in the amount oil moving through Albany by train is escalating into a rather loud controversy.

One reliable sign: A meeting at an elementary school on Feb. 12 about the volume of North Dakota crude moving through the capital drew a crowd of hundreds to protest and ask questions.

Another: The Cuomo administration is taking action.

Top environmental officials now say that the state plans to devote more resources to monitoring the practice of shipping crude oil by rail, including conducting a review of already-approved agreements with oil companies.

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This follows several high-profile explosions and dozens of deaths in other states and Canada, and weeks of growing pressure from community activists and environmentalists.

At the moment, oil trains zip along a thousand miles of New York tracks that run through hundreds of communities and most of upstate’s major cities—Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse—carrying light, sweet Bakken crude oil federal regulators have deemed dangerously explosive. Three out of four of these train cars are prone to spills, federal investigators have found.

State environmental officials actually admit to having been caught off-guard by the increased amount of oil being moved through New York by rail. The heightened traffic is particularly conspicuous in Albany, with trains now parked on rail lines running through the center of the city virtually every day.

State environmental conservation commissioner Joe Martens says he can look out of his office window and see the trains backing up.

“No one can help notice that the rail line goes right through downtown Albany, and the increase in traffic has really been remarkable,” he said recently.

Railroads are governed by federal law, and because of a combination of market pressures on other sources of fuel and an abundance of fracked crude oil from western shale fields, the number of carloads of oil, according to the Association of American Railroads, has jumped from 9,500 a day in 2008 to 400,000 in 2013.

The number of trains coming through New York will soon grow substantially. Prior to the administration’s recent announcement of its intent to pay more attention to the issue, the state had already approved a doubling of the amount that will come through the Albany port alone, from 1.2 to 2.8 billion gallons a year. The companies that applied for the permits claimed that they would not significantly increase rail traffic.

After pipelines, barge and rail are the cheapest way to transport crude. New York offers both, along with easy access to East Coast refineries and a market with an unceasing demand for oil. The state has allowed and even encouraged growth of crude oil transportation recently, granting permits and awarding funding to increase infrastructural capacity for ever more oil-laden trains to pass through, often in close proximity to residential areas.

Apparently the relatively new attention to safety issues involving rail-shipped crude has prompted a change in the administration’s thinking.

Governor Andrew Cuomo himself said earlier this month that New York will not wait for a “catastrophic accident,” and issued an executive order that pushes for more federal assistance in spill prevention and handling as well as a rapid phase-out of the most dangerous cars. He funded five freight-rail inspectors in his state budget proposal and asked five state agencies to study how New York can better prepare for the trains.

That leaves most of the responsibility for monitoring the trains to the federal authorities. But it also leaves Cuomo room to take more aggressive measures later on, perhaps requiring additional studies of train vulnerability or even mandating catastrophic insurance for rail carriers.

Other states have also begun increasing their scrutiny of rail-carried crude, too. California is considering a tax on crude oil that would pay for an increased emergency-response capability. Minnesota governor Mark Dayton convened a cabinet-level panel to craft legislation on oil-train regulation. The mayors of Chicago and Philadelphia want to impose a hazardous-materials fee on oil trains that would pay for infrastructure upgrades.

It’s too early to tell whether Cuomo’s executive order is a substantive policy change or more of a gesture to convey to the public that he’s keeping an eye on things, and to cover his bets if something goes terribly wrong.

Other states will be watching closely.

This article appeared in the March edition of Capital magazine.