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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

Questions need to be asked on oil safety

The crude oil being transported by train through the Capital Region is often described as highly volatile.

But what does this mean? Does it mean that this particular kind of crude oil is more combustible than others? That it’s more likely to burst into flames and explode?

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal suggests yes, that’s exactly what it means.

According to the WSJ, oil extracted from shale via the controversial technique known as fracking “is generally more volatile and more similar to jet fuel than traditional crude oil, which has seldom been linked to explosive accidents.”

In an earlier article, the newspaper reported that “crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale formation contains several times the combustible gases as oil from elsewhere.”

Well, why might this be?

Again, the Wall Street Journal has some answers.

The newspaper explains that while energy companies invested hundreds of millions of dollars to make crude safer to handle when fracking began in South Texas a few years ago, they neglected to install such equipment in North Dakota’s oil fields. Volatile gases that are removed from the South Texas crude aren’t removed from the North Dakota crude, much of which is bound for the Port of Albany.

“The result is that the second-fastest growing source of crude in the U.S. is producing oil that pipelines often would reject as too dangerous to transport,” the Wall Street Journal states.

So with little public input or awareness, the Capital Region has quietly become a destination for some of the most unsafe crude oil in the world. Which could be made safer, if energy companies cared to make the investment. In a way, it feels a little bit like we’ve drawn the short end of the stick. Why can’t our crude oil be as safe as the South Texas crude?

When it comes to the dangers posed by the oil trains, most people focus on the possibility of an explosion or crash, and with good reason. Last year, an oil train derailment in Quebec resulted in the fire and explosion of multiple cars carrying Bakken crude, and the deaths of 47 people.

But there are other reasons to be worried.

This week I spoke with James M. Schaefer, a member of the Rotterdam Conservation Advisory Council who wrote a letter to The Gazette about the threat an oil train spill might pose to a major source of local drinking water — Schenectady’s aquifer.

Schaefer’s letter piqued my interest for a couple of reasons.

It highlighted concerns I hadn’t heard much about, and suggested that people beyond Albany County, where much of the local activism around the oil trains is based, are following the issue and asking questions.

“Everybody at the Port of Albany is concerned about explosions like the one in Quebec,” Schaefer told me.

“But we’ve had derailments along the Mohawk many times.” What would happen, he asked, if an oil train derailment were to occur in Schenectady County? Would the crude penetrate the cobble and gravel layers of the aquifer?

As a member of the Rotterdam Conservation Advisory Council, “I’m raising the concerns, the what ifs,” Schaefer said. “We need leadership on the part of politicians. If that aquifer got compromised, you’d have 150,000 homes up for sale. Water is everything.”

Like me, Schaefer sees the oil train issue as a state and even regional concern.

“These trains come from all the way across the state,” he said. “There are other rivers and lakes. You’ve got all these bodies of water, and all these communities.”

The federal government is considering requiring energy companies to install equipment that can remove volatile gases from crude oil, thus making is safer to transport. But there appears to be resistance.

The energy industry maintains that the Bakken crude isn’t any less safe than crude from anywhere else. And they might have a point.

In June, acting National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart said that all crude shipments are flammable and can damage the environment. Which means that the safety of transporting all crude oil — not just crude oil from the Bakken — is a concern.

But the Bakken crude sounds dangerous enough, and a huge amount of it — approximately 150,000 barrels — is transported through the Capital Region each day.

If there’s a way to make this process safer, well, let’s make it safer.

But let’s also get answers to some basic questions.

Just how dangerous is this oil, since there seems to be some dispute? How would a spill affect our drinking water? How many people might be killed or injured in an explosion like the one in Quebec?

I could go on.

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