15 January 2015

Albany Terminal

How quickly we change from a world in which extracting a barrel of oil from some cold distant place and shipping it via a tenuous supply chain across a continent seemed like a great deal – until the price of oil dropped below $50 a barrel, far below the cost of getting that oil from the frozen North.
So who, in these giddy days of easy oil, wants to hear any grousing about old train cars carrying precarious amounts of oil through fragile regions of the USA?

Railroad tank cars at terminal for off-loading oil onto barges

America's new-found oil prosperity has a number of causes, one of the most productive being the Bakken shale formation in the remotest part of North Dakota, near the border with Canada which has pushed the USA up to the lead of world oil producers. So much oil is being pumped there, in fact, that they don't know what to do with it. There is no infrastructure to get it out of this remote location, to the point that drillers are burning off the natural gas found with the oil just to get to the oil. The only transportation infrastructure in the region is the railroad which had been used to haul grain. Now the grain rots at the terminal because the trains are hauling oil, to the tune of 50 trains a week, and that is just on one of the many train routes out of the Bakken. This oil is unusually volatile, and these trains are fully loaded and heavy. This, and the poor state of America's rail lines combine to produce a series of accidents waiting to happen. In summer 2013, a Canadian town, Lac-Megantic, was literally blown off the map by one of these "Bomb Trains." A ludicrous number of these trains have exploded, spilled, and crashed damaging lives, property, and the environment.

Long train of tank cars on Canadian Pacific train line

There are two main rail freight routes across North America, Canadian Pacific (the old Delaware and Hudson Line) which goes north of the great lakes, through Canada, winding down a precipitous cliff above Lake Champlain as it comes back into the USA, and CSX (the old New York Central line) comes through Chicago, and on the south side of the Great Lakes, both terminating in Albany, where it is off-loaded onto barges and shipped to refineries up and down the east coast.
Between the poor maintenance of the infrastructure, the laughable safety record of the industry, the volume of product being moved, and the fragility of the ecosystems through which the network passes, the only question is when will be the next disaster, not if. But perhaps we should wait until one of these trains filled with oil derails and plunges into Lake Champlain before we protest this nonsense, or another small town gets blown off the map (who cares if a few more Canadians die anyway), or perhaps we wait until one of those barges capsizes and spills its contents into the Hudson?

Children on playground next to railroad tank cars

This discussion is about the safety and reliability of the transportation infrastructure, and leaves aside the larger question of our overall reliance on petroleum. As a society, we are ignoring both questions. As New Yorkers, we should address this question of the reckless movement of a toxic, volatile material through our neighborhoods. The geopolitical anomaly of cheap oil is temporary, and soon those trains will once again be running down the Great Lakes.

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