ALBANY — Do I want the Keystone XL pipeline in my neighborhood? Do you want it in yours?
That isn’t an entirely hypothetical question for many of us here in the Capital Region. There’s a proposal afoot to move Keystone-type crude oil on trains headed to the Port of Albany, where it would be transferred and shipped to refineries.
The product would be different than the billions of gallons of crude oil, mostly from North Dakota, that already passes through the area by rail and ship. It would be heavier, thicker oil, probably from Canadian tar sands, the type that environmentalists say is especially dirty and destructive.
Well, at least that’s what we think the oil would be. We’re being kept in the dark.
Global Partners, the company behind the plan, has said little about the oil it intends to handle at the port and has not conceded that the crude would be the controversial, tar-sands variety at the center of a $5.4 billion Keystone project, which the Obama administration has declined to approve. That pipeline would carry the crude from Alberta to Texas.
But the company is seeking approval for a 2,600-square-foot building with four massive boilers that would warm the oil before it’s transferred to ships. That means that the oil — whether from tar sands or not — is so heavy and thick that it must be heated for transfer. That means the crude is almost certainly different than the oil that now passes through the region, which hasn’t required heating.
The proposal has involved officials in our little Albany in the roiling international debate over tar-sands oil.
“All of a sudden,” said city planner Brad Glass, “the Planning Board is the entity charged with saving the world.”
So far, the board has delayed a decision on the Global Partners project, partly because it wants more detail from the company. Members of the Common Council are also asking for additional information.
“Why aren’t they giving us the full details?” asked Dominick Calsolaro, whose tenure on the council just ended. “I think people have a right to know what’s going on in their own backyards.”
Last month, Calsolaro asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation to extend the comment period for its review of the project. As a result, the DEC has moved the deadline to Jan. 30.
Meanwhile, the Common Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution asking for a hearing on the Global Partners plan and requesting that the company divulge the type of oil it would move through the city. The resolution frames the issue as one of “environmental justice,” noting that the Global Partners boilers would be built near low-income housing and that the rail line passes through sections of the city with large minority populations.
Of course, crude-carrying rail lines already travel through all types of Capital Region neighborhoods — rich and poor; urban, suburban and rural. As I’ve said here before, I live in one of the many neighborhoods where train rumbles and horns are part of life’s soundtrack.
The widespread presence of those rail lines makes explosive crashes such as the one last year in Quebec, in which 47 people were killed, or the one this month in North Dakota more than a little disconcerting. And the number of oil-carrying trains passing through the region is only expected to increase.
Environmentalists, with an eye on global warming, hoped that blocking the Keystone pipeline would stem the extraction of tar-sands oil in Canada. While it’s possible the heavy crude would have come to our region even with the pipeline’s quick approval, the Global Partners project shows that the industry will seek other ways to move its valuable product.
It’s interesting, I think, that environmental efforts to stop the pipeline might lead to greater environmental threats here. The oil just keeps on rolling.
Are trains and ships a more dangerous way to transport oil than a pipeline? That’s unclear to me — but most experts agree that a spill of heavy crude on the Hudson River would be especially destructive.
“Some of this crude is heavier than water,” said John Lipscomb, a boat captain for the Riverkeeper environmental group. “The idea of a spill of a toxic pollutant that would sink and become virtually unrecoverable is really frightening.”
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