ALBANY – A vote by three men in the capital of North Dakota on Thursday could make thousands of massive crude oil trains crossing the U.S. on the way to Albany and other coastal ports a bit safer.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission moved to require oil companies in its Bakken oil fields remove the most flammable components from crude oil before loading it onto oil trains streaming out of the region to coastal refineries.
The proposal is not final, however, with the commission voting to take further public comment on technical aspects of the plan for another week. The panel — made up of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, and Agricultural Commissioner Doug Goehring — will meet again late this month. It is expected to grant final approval.
“The North Dakota Industrial Commission recognizes the importance of making Bakken crude oil as safe as possible for transportation,” according to a commission statement. “These new standards will create a consistent barrel of Bakken crude and improve the safety of oil for transport.”
The commission expects to finalize the order effective Feb. 1, 2015 to allow oil producers who seek alternative stripping methods to request a hearing. Stripping of flammable components from crude oil prior to shipment is done in other states, such as Texas. But it was opposed by the industry in North Dakota on the grounds it was unnecessary and expensive.
“We are pleased North Dakota has advanced this proposal to make the transport of crude oil safer across the country and in New York State. We look forward to the Commission’s vote,” according to a statement from the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Last month the Cuomo administration wrote to the North Dakota governor to urge he support the proposal to strip the most flammable components from Bakken crude.
There have been several derailments of Bakken crude trains that led to explosions and massive fires after rail tankers ruptured. In the summer of 2013, such a derailment-driven explosion killed 47 in a small town in Quebec near the Maine border. New York has had four derailments, but none involved explosions or fires.
People living around the port in Albany’s South End have questioned the risks of an explosion there and want the oil trains halted unless they can be made safe.
“Such stripping, from a public safety perspective, makes a lot of sense,” said Chris Amato, a staff attorney with Earthjustice, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental legal group and DEC deputy commissioner for natural resources from 2007 to 2011. “But it does not address the underlying issue of why our country is rushing to extract and burn fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”
Last month, Amato’s group filed a petition with DEC claiming the state has the power to immediately ban the most common type of tanker cars — called DOT-111s — from entering the port loaded with flammable Bakken oil. DEC disagreed that it had the power to take such a step, which would have made Albany the first place in the country to bar the aging tankers, which in derailments have been prone to rupture, leading to fires and explosions.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been deflecting calls for the state to block the oil trains, saying rail transportation is controlled by the federal government, not the state.
“There is no doubt that we need to make it safer to ship crude oil across the country and through New York state,” wrote Martens and state Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald in an Oct. 21 letter to North Dakota urging adoption of the stripping rules. “One of the best ways to do this is to take action at the source, before the oil is shipped through our communities. North Dakota has proposed stronger precautions on this kind of rail shipments, that will benefit everyone who lives or works near a crude oil transport line.”
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