Why Albany is playing a major role in the transportation of oil, and why that concerns some people

The Port of Albany.

There's been a lot attention recently on the Port of Albany's growing role in the shipment of crude of oil -- and the potential dangers involved. More specifically, a company has proposed building a new facility at the port that could potentially open the way for a different type of oil to be shipped through the port, and that's raised some questions.

If you haven't been following this issue -- and we don't really know why you're not thoroughly caught up on petroleum product distribution systems -- here's a Q&A-style breakdown of some of the issues involved -- and why people are concerned.

Oil? We don't have oil here, so where is it coming from?

OK, let's start at the beginning, which in this case is out in North Dakota.

There's a subterranean geological formation there called the Bakken formation (it also covers parts of Montana and Canada). Oil reserves were discovered there more than half a century ago, but for much of the time since it wasn't economical to extract the oil because the reserves were trapped about two miles underground beneath a thick layer of shale (a type of rock). [Wikipedia]

Enter hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as a lot people call it, during the last decade. This extraction method involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to fracture the rock above the deposits, allowing the oil to seep up through the cracks. Combined with horizontal drilling, fracking has made Bakken oil economical to recover. [Wikipedia]

That's prompted a big upswing in the extraction of Bakken oil -- daily production has roughly quintupled since 2007. Toward the end of last year the federal Energy Information Administration was projecting that Bakken production would soon top 1 million barrels a day, representing 10 percent of US oil production. That's pushed North Dakota into the #2 spot for crude oil production in the US, behind only Texas. [EIA] [EIA]

(As it happens, fracking hasn't only opened up new oil production, but also natural gas -- there's been a big upswing in natural gas production in the United States. If New York State approves fracking -- and there's no indication yet from the Cuomo admin when or if that might happen -- the technique would be used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in the Southern Tier. It's already happening in neighboring Pennsylvania.) [EIA]

us eia bakken production 2007-2014

Zzzzzzzzz. Can we just cut to the part about why it's coming through Albany?

All this crude oil being produced in North Dakota has to be transported to refineries so it can be turned into various products (such as gasoline). But the refineries aren't in North Dakota, or anywhere close. So the oil must be shipped somehow.

Pipelines are one option, but the Bakken oil is coming from an area that previously wasn't a big producer. So companies are looking at building a lot of new infrastructure, which represents huge investments (like, billions of dollars), takes a while to build, and is subject to regulatory hurdles (see: the Obama administration's long review of the Keystone pipeline). [Politico]

The other major option: ship the stuff on trains, taking advantage of the rail infrastructure already in place. And yep, you guessed it, that's cheaper. So the amount of oil being transported by train in this country is way, way, way up over the last few years. [Businessweek]

And here's where we get to Albany. The Port of Albany is a connector between rail lines -- specifically a Canadian Pacific direct service route from North Dakota -- and shipping on the Hudson River. If you can get oil to the Port of Albany, you can put it on a tanker ship, and then send the oil down the Hudson River to major refineries along the East Coast (both US and Canadian). [Port of Albany] [CPR]

So, in short: All that oil in North Dakota has to go somewhere. And the Port of Albany happens to be a node in one of the cheapest networks for moving it.

Oh, so that's what those tanker train cars are?

Yep. You've probably seen them parked on the rail line along I-787 downtown. Most of those rail cars are a type known as DOT-111 tank cars, and they're often carrying crude oil. (Why are we so specific in mentioning the type of tank car? If a wonky technical reference is introduced in the first act, then...) [Wikipedia]

So what could go wrong?

In the worst case scenario, a lot. The prime example is what happened in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec last summer. A train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in an enormous fireball. The explosion killed more than 40 people and took out at least 30 buildings. [Wikipedia] [MacLeans] [The Star]

As the amount of oil being shipped by rail has increased, so too have the number of accidents -- there have been 10 large crude oil spills because of rail accidents in the US and Canada since last March. [NYT]

Is the oil the concern -- or is that it's being transported on trains?

Well, both. There's concern about the rail shipments and whether adequate safety and security measures are being taken. There's also the issue of those tanker cars -- the DOT-111 -- which have come under criticism for being unsafe. A 2012 National Transportation Safety Board report tagged the car as having a "high incidence of tank failure." Chuck Schumer has been pushing for the cars to be replaced or retro-fitted. [TU] [NTSB] [Chuck Schumer office]

There's also the oil itself. A safety alert issued by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration this month reported that "recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil." [PHMSA]

So: problem tank cars + potentially more flammable than usual oil + recent derailments = concern.

Why is this coming up now?

This issue has been simmering for a while, both around the nation and locally, in large part because of Lac Megantic. Chris Churchill over at the Times Union has been writing about it since last summer. [TU]

But this most recent focus seems to be the result of an application from a company called Global Partners -- which already operates at the Port of Albany -- to build a facility at the port for heating up oil so the crude can be loaded onto ships. The company had to apply to the city of Albany planning board for approval for the facility. That drew attention to the matter. And the company hasn't exactly been forthcoming about the sort of oil the facility will heat, so that's also raised some eyebrows -- because the fact that the oil would need to be heated for loading points not to Bakken crude, but rather the sticky crude oil from Canada's tar sands. [TU]

Other concerns?

Well, once people seem to learn more about this topic, the more concerns they seem to have. This video produced by Justin Mikulka is a good overview of those concerns, both general and local.

While the rails that transport this oil pass through many Capital Region communities, it's important to highlight Albany's South End, which is right next to the Port of Albany. It's an economically disadvantaged neighborhood -- tanker cars are parked right next to public housing there -- so there's a social justice element to this conversation because the voices of people from neighborhoods such as the South End don't always get heard as they should. But a community meeting there this week drew a lot of people and it sounds like people are getting organized. [Capital New York] [TU]

Another issue, and one you might not expect: Historian Don Rittner has pointed out that the proposed oil heating facility would be built on the site of Fort Nassau, the original Dutch outpost here (it even preceded Fort Orange). Rittner says the location could be an important archaeological site. [Don Rittner TU blog]

OK, but don't we need oil?

Yep, like or it not. The modern world basically floats on a layer of fossil fuel, and we all rely on oil in some form or another, either directly (gasoline for cars, heating oil) or indirectly (so many products are derived from petroleum). That doesn't necessarily preclude trying to find safer ways to produce and transport it. But, yeah, we all play some role in this.

What can I do if I'm concerned about this?

The proposed Global Partners facility at the Port of Albany requires a permit modification from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The public comment period for that permit has been extended until April 2. And DEC scheduled a public informational meeting for February 12 at Giffen Memorial Elementary School in Albany at 6 pm.

The DEC commissioner said this week that the agency is looking at the Port of Albany situation "very carefully," though the agency doesn't have the authority to regulate the shipping of the oil (that's a federal matter). [Capital New York]

Contacting your local rep -- city, state, or Congressional -- can also be a good way to make it known you're concerned. Politicians on multiple levels seem to be paying attention to this issue at the moment.


Thank you for posting.

Side note, these tank cars are parked right next to the proposed new convention center. PROBLEM!

Petroleum has always been a mainstay at the Port of Albany. If improvements in storage and transportation routes can be made to help support expansion of the Port operations, we would be foolhardy to discount the economic opportunity it will bring. We need to stop looking at the past to prevent the future. There will always be archeological significance to someone or something. Excavate, document, photograph. What more is there to do? Anything subsurface for so long in a river plain cannot exist other than in situ. And petroleum is the devil we know. Let's find a way to do it and benefit form it. Opportunities like these are rare and should not be lost to distraction when fixes or corrections can be implemented to make such operations realistically viable to all.

Great overview!

In the interest of balance I would've also mentioned how this proposal, if enacted, would create jobs at the port, raise revenue, etc.

While there certainly are dangers in moving oil, all of the attention has seemed to focus on the negative where I personally see this as a big opportunity to the area, provided proper regulations/measures are in place to avoid disaster.

There are a thousand other ways to bring economic growth to the Capital Region without burning and storing oil in our downtown. The jobs and money that this has and will bring is negligible. None of it will stay here.


A nicely done summary. Thank you.

And perhaps it should be mentioned that while all those tanker cars are *parked* in the south end of Albany (and all along I-787), there are over 200 cars of Bakken crude plus who knows how many of ethanol *moving* through Mechanicville, Halfmoon, Waterford, Cohoes, Maplewood, Watervliet, and Menands every day in order to get to the Port. Tanker cars in motion are much more dangerous than those standing still.


I'm confused by many of your statements.

You wrote: "We need to stop looking at the past to prevent the future."

Do you mean, we need to stop looking at historic preservation as a hinderance to the future (which many enemies of history do)?

Or are you the only person I've ever encountered who does not agree with the famous mantra "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"?

You wrote: "Anything subsurface for so long in a river plain cannot exist other than in situ."

This is the definition of "in situ":


What do you mean it "cannot exist"? Things that have been subsurface can be sitting exactly where they were dropped. That's what in situ means. In the case of being on an island that repeatedly flooded, the artifacts can absolutely exist elsewhere as they would have been washed down and upriver (we have tides here). Or they could have been quickly covered in silt and would be right where they were dropped.

Your statement just doesn't make any sense. It would be logical to assume that some artifacts and remains would be in place and others would have been moved.

When John Wolcott told the public in the late 1960s where Fort Orange was located, many people said there was no way anything would be left. Well, they found Fort Orange in the 1970s. And there were tons of artifacts. Right where John said they'd be.

But the archaeologists were only given a brief window to excavate. And they were only allowed to examine a small portion of the site. And then the whole thing was covered up by an exit to I-787 that could have been adjusted to leave the site to further study.

We don't know for sure what remains of Fort Nassau. We don't know for sure if it's where John says it is. But we DO know for sure that we'll never know anything for sure if we don't handle this situation correctly.

You wrote: "There will always be archeological significance to someone or something. Excavate, document, photograph. What more is there to do? "

There's a lot more to do with an historic site from 1614. Have you never been to an historic site before? What do they do at the Colosseum? What do they do at the Great Wall of China? What do they do at the Pyramids? What do they do at Gettysburg? Etc. Etc. Etc.

You wrote, referring to a boiler plant: "Opportunities like these are rare..."

Opportunities like the chance to save the first European habitation in New York State, which is the first Dutch habitation in North America, which dates back to 1614, are more rare than oil plants, "ace."

We've had many chances to exploit our unrivaled historical heritage in this region, and we've blown nearly every one. This may be our last shot.

Don Rittner and John Wolcott go into greater detail about the potential for Fort Nassau in this press release I wrote yesterday:


"And petroleum is the devil we know"... Well if you say so. Let's just stick with petroleum for good. Let's ignore all other power sources, including those that used to serve us well. Hydro for example. Solar power? Forget it. Let's not explore scaling down our living arrangements so that we don't require so much energy in the first place.

So what do we do when we run out of petroleum?

Excellent job, folks. I'll stay out of the politics, tempting as it may be, but commend you on the only balanced summary of the issue out there.

The question isn't simply "Ok, But don't we need oil"?

We need lots of things. There are ways to address those needs safely and ways to put corporate profits first and not address those needs.

They've known these rail cars were unsafe for many years. But they still keep using them because it is cheaper. They are shipping explosive material and not classifying it properly. And, Global Partners repeatedly refuses to comment on any of this.

Check out Global's big increases in income and profit the past few years. http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=190320&p=irol-presentations (scroll to the end of the PDF)

They are making a lot of money off of Albany. What are we getting in return?

“Gettysburg rakes in more money in heritage tourism than all of the Capital District sites combined, and all they have is a Civil War Battlefield..." = OH MAN LOLOLOLOL

For those who don't see the importance of some old Dutch ruins in Albany, Don Rittner is on fire with his latest piece on this story. He very concisely explains how the Dutch presence in Albany started the whole American "Project of Civilization" and gave birth to many of the freedoms we take for granted today.

"What it means to be an American"


Once again, AOA does an outstanding explanation of an issue of public concern. Complete with some readable wonky details.

Thanks, AOA!

One concern that seems to be overshadowed by the land transportation of this crude is the tankers on the Hudson R.
Do we recal that the first tanker, the Stena Primorsk, carrying Bakken crude ran aground just a few miles south of Albany, rupturing it's outer hull. If the inner hull were penetrated roughly the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill would have been dumped directly into the Hudson R. At the State and local levels we are woefully unprepared for a spill of this magnitude. Were it to happen, decades of work, costing billions of dollars, to try and restore the Hudson R. would be wiped out in an instant and eliminate the possibilty for a healthy Hudson for at least another generation.

There are huge, long-term and sustainable economic opportunities for communities up and down the Hudson R. (not just Albany)when there is not hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil in it. The economic benefits of shipping is mostly to the oil companies, where the communities just just added risk and potential degradation of quality of life and economic opportunity.

Albany is a transshipment point. I haven't seen any data that would indicate fees (if there are any) generated by transferring the oil from shore to ship provide any economic benefit to the taxpayers in the city. Not to say that benefit would outweigh the tremendous social and environmental cost, of course. I'm just trying to illustrate that the economic arguments don't hold up, yet.

There's tremendous risk to human life, property and the environment, a risk that I believe most people would whole-heatedly agree isn't worth any potential reward.

I've lived on the Hudson River for 25+years there has always been oil coming up the river on barges were do you think all those oil tank farms south of Albany and in both Ports get there oil from?
As far as Cyril saying there are thousands of ways for economical grow in Albany beside oil let's hear them.
I must say I'm glad this discussion is getting some traction because there are ways to improve the tanker cars which is what we all want right?
Let's not stop business development from happening that's one of the reasons NYS has such a bad rap anti business. After all isn't the Port of Albany what made this area prosper for generations this is just another evolution of getting product to market.

Jon, I guess to echo some of the comments above, can you name some Albany businesses that have been developed by this activity?

Wow, great article. AoA has really nicely summed up a complex issue here. Great work.

Also, so many great points being made here in the comments; I partially agree with nearly everyone.

@ace, dailyplanit, & Jon - I agree that developments like this can lead to job growth. True, Albany would only be a trans-shipment point. However the logistics industry is great at vertical dis-intergration...meaning large scale operations can beget smaller, complimentary, supportive businesses. As someone who works in Hazardous Materials shipping, I can confirm this is particularly the case when regulatory subject-matter expertise is needed.

Yet, as someone who also subscribes to the concept of "Peak Oil" I agree with many of Mr. Crary's comments. (*love the Kunstler Cast, Duncan!). That there are so many complications to shipping this stuff goes to show that we obviously already used up the "low-hanging fruit", so-to-speak.

On top of that, I was a History major in college, so I can certainly appreciate the comments of Don Ritter and his supporters.

One other point I'd like to make. I mentioned above my expertise in shipping what we call "Hazardous Materials". Yes, these tank cars moving through Albany are a concern to public safety. However, you probably don't want to know just exactly what kinds of hazardous cargo are being moved alongside you on the highway every single day, to say nothing of hazardous air-cargo allowed to move on passenger flights all around the world.

Point being, this is the reality of the world we live in. Commerce moves on. Now I will be the last one to argue that this is a totally sustainable, or 100% environmentally-friendly situation. But, if anyone thinks Albany, NY is the lone battlefield on the front line of safe commercial shipping, you are a bit mislead. Untold tons of Hazardous Materials are shipped day-in and day-out without incident and without injury.

So far, this story is being ignored by the corporate media: http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2014/02/13-1 Another Derailment Highlights Danger of Transporting Crude by Train

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