Shale-by-Rail: Regulations Aren’t Enough

From the June 2014 PNL #835

by Emily Bishop and Ursula Rozum

If something sounds like a really bad idea, it probably is. Like shipping explosive shale oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale by rail across the United States in “DOT-111” shipping cars, originally made to carry molasses and corn syrup, to the Port of Albany and putting it on barges on the Hudson River.

The Bakken shale oil is a light substance that is extracted using hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). This particular oil is often called “crude” oil, but unlike the stereotypical image of crude oil, it is light in weight and color and is similar to gasoline in consistency. This particular shale oil can vaporize into the air and ignite at a very low temperature, known as its “flashpoint.” The addition of fracking chemicals to the shale oil, combined with its low flashpoint, makes it the most volatile oil that is transported by rail.

In July of 2013, a train derailment in the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec killed 47 people and destroyed the center of the vacation town, raising the alarm about the growing shale-by-rail industry that has ballooned as a result of the Midwest oil boom. There have also been recent explosions elsewhere in Canada, as well as in North Dakota, Alabama, and Virginia.


Bakken shale runs through Syracuse on trains operated by CSX. The trains are a mile long and can carry roughly one million gallons of oil per shipment. While New York has not yet seen tragedy at the scale of Lac Megantic, since the beginning of 2014 there have been derailments in Kingston, Buffalo and outside of Albany in the town of Selkirk.

Government Officials Ask for Stricter Rules

The shale-by-rail industry has grown exponentially in recent years. Railroads carried more than 400,000 carloads of shale oil last year, up from 9,500 in 2008. About 75% of Bakken shale oil production travels by rail, with Albany receiving 20-25% of these shipments.

New York is technically prevented by federal law from regulating rail freight transportation or car safety standards since this is an issue of interstate commerce. In recent weeks, Governor Cuomo and Senator Schumer have come out in support of stronger regulations. Schumer has called the industry’s use of outdated tank cars a “ticking time bomb” and has encouraged regulators to replace older cars with models built after 2011 and suited to carry petroleum.

Cuomo also took action by issuing an executive order to review the safety concerns with the oil rail cars in January 2014, three years after this industry had already started operating in New York. This action is too little, too late. It turns out that state officials can’t do much about regulating the rails since they are under federal guidelines.

However, Cuomo sent a letter to President Obama in early May 2014 urging him to “prioritize federal action,” which includes changing voluntary safety measures into regulations; finalizing the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration regulations to remove DOT-111 tank cars from transporting Bakken shale oil; partnering federal and NYS regulators to develop area-specific response plans to protect our environment; and developing appropriate classification and testing of Bakken shale oil in order to inform our local emergency responders, who would be dealing with this kind of accident.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) did issue an Emergency Restriction/Prohibition Order on May 7, 2014, but it isn’t enough. The Order “requires that each railroad carrier provide the State Emergency Response Commission (SERC), for each state in which it operates trains transporting 1 million gallons or more of Bakken shale oil, [and] notification regarding the expected movement of such trains through the counties in the state.” This is to include a description of the oil to be transported, estimated volumes and frequencies per week, the routes which the trains will be traveling and the applicable emergency response information. The Order also calls on the railroad carriers assisting SERCs in disseminating emergency response information to emergency responders.

Within 30 days from when the Order was issued, the railroad carriers shipping shale oil have to report notification of their activities to the DOT. If they don’t report by this time, DOT will order the railroad carrier to cease operations until it does so. Let’s hope it is clear that the railroad carriers do not have the capacity to effectively handle this explosive material and that the DOT immediately calls for an end to its transportation. The least the DOT could do is prohibit railroad carriers from transporting Bakken shale oil in DOT-111 cars, like Transport Minister Lisa Raitt did for all shipments in Canada.

A shale oil train travels amidst the busy
interstate in Albany, NY. Photo: Loren Baum

The actions of the DOT, Cuomo, and Schumer are obvious and necessary.  However, just like there is no safe fracking, there is no safe shipment of highly volatile shale oil. Instead of regulating, our government should instead immediately cease the shipment of Bakken shale oil by rail through the US. These trains are still moving without our local representatives or first responders knowing what is coming through or what to do in case a train explodes.

What’s worse is that residents don’t know what to do in case a train carrying Bakken shale oil explodes in their community.  Do they know that they need to evacuate immediately? That one should be at least a mile away from the site of the explosion? Do our emergency responders know how to deal with a shale oil explosion? Recently, Ed Griffin-Nolan reported in the Syracuse New Times that our first responders in Onondaga County haven’t had a hazardous material training in over six years, and the shale oil began to move through New York State just three years ago.

Is Cuomo Preparing Our Community for This Emergency?

Recently, Governor Cuomo has been touring his “emergency preparedness” workshops throughout the state. They are mostly about storms, not exploding oil trains. While these workshops are attempting to educate people about emergency preparedness for weather events, the Onondaga County Emergency Response team hasn’t taken initiative to educate the public about the potential of a train exploding in our community and how to respond to it. But Kevin Wisely, Onondaga County Commissioner of Emergency Management, assured us that “we have response plans for our community. Crude [shale] oil is just one of a multitude of commodities that travels through our community on rail that we prepare and train for.”

However, shale oil isn’t just any other commodity and it isn’t just any other oil. It is liquid petroleum that is extracted using fracking from shale formation, meaning that it contains methane and other gases that are extracted with it. And due to the Bakken shale oil’s volatility and “light” characteristic, it releases more volatile organic emissions (fugitive emissions) than other types of petroleum, causing it to explode more easily. Add to this its low flashpoint and we’re dealing with a very dangerous substance. If Onondaga County has a response plan to deal with an emergency of this kind, why aren’t they sharing it with us?

Divesting in Fossil Fuels

We need the transport of Bakken shale oil to cease immediately—at least until there are federal regulations in place and the cars have been updated. But ideally, the practice of fracking and the production of all fossil fuels should be banned. While safer oil trains are superior to building more pipelines in the short term, we have to stop building more fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines, gas storage facilities, compressor stations, and tar sands boilers. Every dollar invested in fossil fuel infrastructure locks us into decades more fossil fuel dependence, diverting resources from urgently needed investment in renewable energy.

Pete Seeger said, “participation— that’s what’s gonna save the human race.” Seeger’s greatest accomplishment was his successful effort to clean up the Hudson River. The river was a raging sewer when Seeger set out to save it in the 1960s, a dump for industries that grew along its banks, full of PCBs from the electrical industry, sewage discharges, pesticides, and other contaminants. The main traffic at the time was cement and oil barges. Decades later, the cleanup of the Hudson continues and decades later, the Hudson River is once again in danger, this time from barges carrying some of the dirtiest oil on the planet. It’s only a matter of time before the Hudson River sees an oil spill like the one on the Mississippi River in February 2014, just upstream from New Orleans.

Like Pete Seeger did, citizens of New York are speaking up against extreme fossil fuel infrastructure. Community and labor activists are sounding the alarm about safety and mobilizing the public to push New York to do its job and protect the environment which our lives depend on.

We need to be there when regulatory agencies shirk their responsibilities, as the DEC recently did when it declared that boilers for Bakken shale—on the shore of the Hudson River next door to public housing—would have no negative impact. It’s up to us to use every tool at our disposal—public comment, protest, voting, political pressure—to help kick our country’s tired addiction to fossil fuels and to stop these bad ideas in their tracks.

Emily is a Regional Coordinator with New Yorkers Against Fracking. Ursula is a Staff Organizer at SPC and Campaign Manager for Howie Hawkins for Governor.