D.E.C. says options limited for opposing crude facility

Capital New York | May 18, 2015 | Column by Scott Waldman

ALBANY—State environmental officials have said in private meetings that it may be legally difficult for them to oppose construction of a heating facility at the Port of Albany that would allow tar sands crude to be transported through New York, according to people who attended the meetings.

An oil train in Albany. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Local environmental groups oppose the transport of tar sands crude, which is extremely difficult to clean up, and which they say poses a risk to the Hudson River, Lake Champlain and other areas where railroad tracks run along the shoreline. Tar sands crude is considered less volatile than the millions of gallons of Bakken crude that now travels through the state each week. The crude heating facility needs a state air permit before it can begin construction.

The purpose of the meetings between senior Department of Environmental Conservation staff and Albany-area officials was to build support for the state's decision on the facility, which is expected to be announced soon, but which has not yet been finalized, according to three meeting attendees.

The D.E.C. staff warned that the state may not have the legal authority to reject the air permit application by Massachusetts-based Global Partners to build crude oil-heating boilers at the Albany port, according to the attendees.

The attendees also said they were told that no final decision had been made.

D.E.C. spokesman Tom Mailey would not answer questions from Capital about the meetings, but provided a brief statement: "No decision has been made at this time."

Albany County executive Dan McCoy and Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan have requested a full environmental review of the facility. The state has already determined that the facility does not need that more extensive review.

Approval of a crude heating facility at the Port of Albany could allow Global to turn Albany, and possibly the Hudson River, into a major transportation route for tar sands crude from western Canada. The energy industry is increasingly turning to rail to transport heavy crude because pipelines, such as the proposed Keystone XL, have to contend with steep opposition and are not growing capacity to meet demand.

Global's facility in Albany could become a major footprint for the expansion of tar sands shipments to the East Coast.

If the state misses a May 21 deadline for deciding on the facility, Global could sue for delaying the permit.

Separately, Albany County has imposed a moratorium on the expansion of crude oil heating at the Port of Albany. Global has claimed the county exceeded its authority and threatened a lawsuit if it attempted to block the project.

The oil train industry has expanded dramatically under Governor Andrew Cuomo. Global Partners began transporting crude through New York in 2011. A year later, the Cuomo administration granted it permission to double its shipments through the Port of Albany, to 1.8 billion gallons. Another oil transportation company, Buckeye Partners, has state permission to move an additional 1 billion gallons a year.

Last year, state officials strongly criticized Global's applications for crude heating facilities as incomplete, and threatened to deny the company's permits unless it provided more information about the type of crude it intended to bring through the facility as well as its insurance coverage and spill-response plans. Global later provided a response. In October, Global quietly withdrew an application that sought to transform a lower Hudson Valley facility into a major transportation hub for heavy crude. It still has plans to build its Albany facility.

A Global spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Opposition to Global's activities increased dramatically after the company attempted to build the crude-heating facility and after a 2013 oil train explosion killed 47 people in Canada. Since 2013, protesters and residents who live in public housing near the port have packed meetings with state officials. 

The regulation of railroads is under federal purview. Cuomo has repeatedly said that federal law prevents him from imposing restrictions on oil trains. The administration has hired additional inspectors and stepped up inspections of oil trains and rail tracks and has sent letters to federal officials asking for stronger restrictions on oil trains. However, it has not taken additional steps to limit oil trains in the way environmental and community groups have requested.


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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.