Domestic oil production has risen rapidly in recent months, and with that comes the need for shipping oil by rail throughout the United States. This need includes sending those oil cars through Albany County.
Many of us weren’t so keenly aware of this practice until last year, when a train derailment in Quebec killed more than 40 people. The rail cars carrying crude oil had tipped and exploded, and that’s when people really started to take notice that similar rail cars were being routed through our area.
Around this same time, Global Companies was looking into expanding its refining business at the Port of Albany. Albany County Executive Dan McCoy fired the first salvo against this practice in March by issuing a moratorium on the amount of crude oil that could be processed at the port. Although he couldn’t do anything to prevent the oil cars from traveling through the county, we think McCoy made the right call by saying there should be more studies done about the refining process for this type of crude oil, which is retrieved from the ground by hydrofracking.
That still leaves the danger of having these oil-carrying rail cars rolling through our neighborhoods. There was an incident in February at the Selkirk Rail Yards where 13 crude oil cars derailed, but fortunately did not tip over. There was another incident in Kingston, and, more recently, there was a derailment in Lynchburg, Va., that resulted in an explosion, forcing the evacuation of more than 300 people.
The issue is with the rail cars themselves. They’re not designed to safely handle the type of crude oil being shipped to refineries, and any derailment could lead to a hazardous spill or an explosion. The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended the creation of thicker-lined tanker cars to carry the oil, but there doesn’t seem to be any push by the freight rail industry or the oil industry to follow through with the NTSB’s recommendation.
Thankfully, local officials aren’t waiting for new rail cars to be built and used before acting. Besides McCoy’s moratorium on expanding oil refining in the county, three state Assembly members — Patricia Fahy, D-Albany, Phil Steck, D-Colonie and John McDonald III, D-Cohoes — introduced bills requiring storage facilities to have insurance, stiffer penalties for trains blocking roadways and creating a private right of action in the event someone is injured due to a blocked roadway. While these bills wouldn’t stop the oil from being railroaded through the state, they would hold the companies responsible in the event something disastrous happens.
Even if these bills, or ones like them, are passed in the fall, there is still little anyone can do to prevent these oil-carrying rail cars from rolling through to the Port of Albany. The demand for North American crude oil is on the rise worldwide, thanks in large part to instability in other oil-producing regions of the world such as the Middle East and eastern Europe. With insufficient pipelines on our continent, oil companies see the rail system as the best way to get crude oil from where it’s extracted to where it’s shipped.
Our hope is that government at all levels will make certain the oil companies and the freight companies are held responsible for any accidents that may take place.