A Revolution In City Hall

Petition Delivery Service: Starting July 12 The Wife is going to WALK from Albany to Binghamton, N.Y. to deliver a petition to a federal judge. That’s right, she is going to walk the entire way along Route 7 to support a motion to release former Albany Imam Yassin Aref from federal prison. Mr. Aref, you may recall, was handed a 15 year sentence even though there was absolutely no evidence presented in the courtroom that he ever intended to commit any crime or "act of terrorism.". Now new evidence has surfaced that the out-of-control FBI Secret Police mistakenly identified Mr. Aref as another person (who is now deceased) but chose to commit perjury rather than admit their serious mistake. To read about The Wife’s projected ten day journey go here, and if you would like to electronically sign the petition that she is going to carry to Binghamton go here.

June 30, 2013

The Port of Albany has quietly become an important link in the flow of oil from North Dakota to the East Coast

In the last few years the Port of Albany in the South End has become very busy. For decades, particularly for most of the twenty years of outgoing mayor Jerry Jennings’ reign, the Port languished, the dockside equipment rusting and becoming outdated while the docks and warehouses were allowed to rot. Once a major employer in the South End, the Port became a mostly unused backwater and the nearby South Pearl Street neighborhoods disintegrated terribly as a result.

But in the last four years there have been some big national developments that have made the Port an important player in the transport and distribution of domestically produced oil. While the current boom is nothing like forty or fifty years ago when hundreds of South End workers unloaded the banana boats from South America for good wages, the oil boom appears to be utilizing the Port to almost it’s fullest capacity. For better or worse, our Port is an economic beneficiary of the massive oil fracking boom in North Dakota.

The Two Big Cranes At The Port Of Albany The Two Big Cranes At The Port Of Albany

Wait, you haven’t heard about any of this? Well, don’t feel bad, most folks around these parts haven’t because the media hardly mentions it. Since 2009 the amount of oil coming out the Bakken Field of North Dakota is so great that some experts are expecting the total yield of the field to eventually surpass Saudi Arabia. Of course it’s an open secret that the Saudi oil is running out, but some expect North Dakota to become “the new Saudi Arabia.”

Others beg to differ, but even these critics are forced to admit that at least for the next decade or so the Bakken Field is and will continue to be one of the most productive oil fields in the world. It is so productive that the United States has become an oil exporter again, even though for years to come we will continue to import foreign oil as the oil corporations dictate. And natural gas, which occurs naturally with oil deposits, will continue to be overproduced by this field for the foreseeable future.

Bakken Field Oil Worker, North Dakota Bakken Field Oil Worker, North Dakota

But the most important detail is that the oil coming out of the Bakken Field is sweet crude, the highest quality oil which contains the lowest amount of sulfur and thus needs the least refining. In this it is comparable to Saudi and Iraqi oil in quality and profitability. In contrast the Caspian Sea oil from central Asia, for example, is low grade and sulfurous, requiring more energy to process.

It has been said that the reason our country is conducting a long and costly war against Afghanistan is to secure US access to that Caspian Sea oil. Perhaps the reason President Obama is finally winding down that stupid war is because the Bakken field of North Dakota means that the oil corporations no longer need that dirty low grade Caspian oil to stay profitable. Perhaps all that sweet crude being loaded down at the Port of Albany is finally bringing that war to an end. Maybe.

Canadian-Pacific Freight Train Hauling Empty 96 Cars North From Albany Heading For Canada In January Canadian-Pacific Freight Train Hauling Empty 96 Oil Tank Cars North From Albany Heading For Canada In January

There is much talk about building pipelines to carry this oil, but right now only about 17 percent of this crude oil is being shipped out of North Dakota by pipeline. The reason, as Reuters News Service put it, “The production surge from Bakken… took the energy services and transport industry by surprise leading to a lag in the right infrastructure to transport crude.” Right now about 75 percent of that oil is being transported by railroad, much if not most of it to the East Coast and Gulf Coast refineries.

The problem is that there are currently no oil pipelines that run from North Dakota to New Jersey and Philadelphia, nor are there likely to be any built soon. Rail is more expensive than pipelines, but is much less expensive for bulk items like crude oil than transport by truck, which is fabulously expensive and wasteful. So it turns out that one of the most important railroad “pipelines” out of North Dakota heads East to the refineries of New Jersey.

But that rail route is through Canada via the Canadian-Pacific Railroad. This makes sense since the Bakken Field is close to the Canadian border, thus the route is shorter than to run a pipe south of Chicago and idirectly east. But since February US train routes are also being used to transport oil directly south of Chicago to the East Coast.

Newly Constructed Oil Storage Tanks At The Port Of Albany, Photo From 2010 Newly Constructed Oil Storage Tanks At The Port Of Albany, Photo From 2010

The Canadian trains don’t run all the way to New Jersey and Philadelphia, they come to a halt at the Port of Albany. Here in the South End the trains unload their cargo into circular oil tanks located along the water’s edge. Giant double-hulled tank barges load up with the oil at these tanks, and those barges are hauled by tug down the Hudson River to the coastal refineries.

The reason for unloading in Albany? It appears that the least expensive way to approach the East Coast refineries is by water, since most of the refineries have been sited on the Atlantic coast to receive oil imported from overseas. From Albany it’s a straight run with deep water and no obstructions on down to the Atlantic Ocean.

I’ve wondered why oil is not being sent by rail from North Dakota to say, Green Bay, Wisconsin to be shipped across the Great Lakes. I can’t find any solid data, but it seems that Canadian-Pacific rail is faster and more efficient than that inland water route, thus less expensive. It’s also quite possible that the locks between the Great Lakes are too small for the big oil barges being used, it turns out the bigger the barge the cheaper the transport. I’ve read that makes a difference and determines the route.

The Wife Complains Bitterly As She Hauls Her Canoe Across Accumulated Debris At The Albany Boat Launch The Wife Complains Bitterly As She Hauls Her Canoe Across Accumulated Debris At The Albany Boat Launch

Last Sunday morning The Wife and I threw our boats into the Hudson at the boat launch in North Albany for the first time this year. Usually we’re out in our boats (her canoe and my kayak) no later than early May, but the weather this year has been so cold and rainy. Last weekend was the first time the temperature of the water in the Hudson went over 70 degrees F, two weeks earlier it was still in the upper 50s.

We were extremely annoyed to find that the City of Albany, here at the beginning of summer, had completely stopped clearing the City’s only boat launch of accumulated debris. I strongly suspect this is because of the demise of the “Albany Duck” amphibious tourist boat that was owned and operated by a former old boy police chief. The filthy noisy diesel “Duck” used the launch heavily, often pushing aside other boaters as it madly kept to it’s schedule. Apparently now that this politically favored private business is kaput the City government sees no reason to clear crap off the ramp.

Our destination was downstream to the Port of Albany so we could see the oil boom for ourselves, but first we stopped to check out the “Big C” (Combined Overflow) storm drain discharge pipe that juts out from under the U-Haul parking lot on the South End waterfront. Regular readers of this blog may recall that this pipe discharges into the Hudson raw sewage that originates from the area around Albany Medical Center. Sometimes floating mats of human poop drift downstream from the Big C and accumulate in front of the fishing deck at Island Creek Park.

The Big C Pipe, Note The State-Issued Green SPDES Permit Top And Center The Big C Pipe, Note The State-Issued Green SPDES Permit Top And Center

That morning we didn’t see any poop, and the sewage stink was not as bad as the last time we checked this past fall. No doubt this was because of all the heavy rains which have diluted the sewage, usually we see floating poop after a dry spell is broken by a heavy downpour. Of course the City has not tried to deal with the problem, but earlier this year for the first time I heard employees of the Albany Planning Department openly acknowledge that there is a problem. That’s progress.

We noticed one change, the Big C now sports a green SPDES permit (usually pronounced “speedies”) which is an acronym for State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System. Basically, the State of New York has now acknowledged that the Big C exists and needs to be regulated. Hopefully that also means the State is officially aware that the pipe discharges raw untreated sewage into the Hudson River. This is also progress.

Tank Barge Loading Oil At The Port Of Albany Tank Barge Loading Oil At The Port Of Albany

Paddling our boats downstream toward the Port the water was choppy. The river was swollen from the recent rains and at the same time the tide was coming in moving upstream. This caused contrary wave actions as the surface upstream flow clashed with the downstream undercurrent. It took us a bit of work to reach the Port.

Immediately at the north end of the Port we found what we were looking for. The past few years I’ve noticed more and more oil loading stations being built dockside by an outfit called Global, and also on the other side of the river along Renssalaer. A great big oil barge was docked at the first station, we pulled up and tmet a gentleman who leaned over the rail to talk to us as we battled to remain stationary in the currents.

He told us that this tank barge was owned by Global, and that at full capacity it carried 4.5 million gallons of Bakken crude! But it was truly a barge, it had no engine that allowed it to run independently, we could see that it was coupled with a tugboat. I also noted that it had no name, just a set of identifying letters and numbers.

The Gentleman On The Tank Barge The Gentleman On The Tank Barge

He told us that he was one of the crew of two for the barge, and that he lived on it and spent most of his time on board. His main job is to maintain the equipment, watching over it to make sure it functions as intended and to do repairs as necessary. It certainly seemed like a solitary life, it appeared that he didn’t get much chance to chat with people.

The most interesting thing he told us was that this high grade oil was full of sand from the fracking process. “That’s why they don’t use a pipeline to transport it,” he said, “it would tear up the pipe.” Yes, it was high grade sweet crude, but the sand played havoc with metal parts. That’s why he was there to watch over the equipment constantly as it was being used.

Later this raised some questions in my mind, like where exactly did this sand come from. He seemed to indicate that the oil was sandy because of the nature of the rock layers from which the oil was extracted, but I wonder if it was because of the fracking technique. It was the development of this new technique that has made it economically possible to access the North Dakota oil starting in 2009.

First, frack fluid is pumped into small fissures no wider than a centimeter. This fluid has been described as a cocktail of water and toxic chemicals and is yellowish with the consistency of snot. After the fluid widens the fissures, a mixture of water and fine sand is pumped into the fissures, which forces out the oil and natural gas.

Halliburton Says Their Clean Stim Fracking Fluid Provides "Breakthrough Environmental Benefits" Halliburton Says Their Clean Stim Fracking Fluid Provides "Breakthrough Environmental Benefits"

The big problem with fracking, as everybody except industry spokespeople acknowledge, is that the frack fluids have a tendency to seep into water tables, thus permanently poisoning drinking water in the ground. I think that in the near future we will be hearing about how wide stretches of North Dakota will (or already have) become virtually uninhabitable because of the lack of local potable water. That’s a sad shame but there’s really nothing we here in Albany or anybody else can do about that.

As the gentleman on the barge pointed out to us, we are an oil consuming society. Most of everything we own today, he reminded us, from clothes to computers are made of oil, and it would be impossible to meet the demand with “natural” materials like cotton and wood. “And there’s oil from upstream floating on that river that you’re paddling,” he added. We quickly told him that we very aware of that fact. Oh yeah.

Eventually he started talking politics. He felt that this country may be headed for a civil war, “not like the last one,” and I agreed that was quite possible. But then he started talking about how the UN would be used to fight against the American people, and he told us he believed that “the American military would never open fire on their own people.” Then he mentioned how much he liked 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. I begged to differ on these points and he decided to end the conversation.

Bakken Oil Field In North Dakota, Rig And Flare Burning Off Natural Gas Bakken Oil Field In North Dakota, Rig And Flare Burning Off Natural Gas

I mentioned earlier that the Bakken fields of North Dakota are also yielding enormous quantities of natural gas, about a quarter of which is being burned off in flares. Between the burning gas and the lights of a vast series of settlements that continue to spring up practically overnight, the middle of North Dakota is lit up as brightly and as widely as Chicago or Los Angeles. You can now see the Bakken field from outer space.

So there is absolutely no need to practice fracking and poison the groundwater in upstate New York. The line that fracking for natural gas in New York “is necessary to meet America’s growing energy needs” is a plain and simple lie. We New Yorkers don’t need to add to the national gas glut, therefore we have no reason to poison our water and destroy our landscape so a few corporatist sleazebags can make a quick buck.

We here in upstate New York can’t do anything about fracking elsewhere, in North Dakota that’s a done deal. But there is no reason why we can’t have pride in our own communities and outlaw fracking. We may as well reap some of the economic benefits of the destruction of large parts of North Dakota, but we don’t have to make ourselves suffer by fracking ourselves.

A "Man Camp" Trailer Housing For Oil Workers, Williston North Dakota, Monthly Rent $4000 A "Man Camp" Trailer Housing For Oil Workers, Williston North Dakota, Monthly Rent $4000

One of the interesting side effects of this glut of gas and oil is there is no longer much need to build or continue to operate coal burning power plants or nuclear power plants in America. Indeed we are seeing existing plants close, and despite encouragement from the federal government we aren’t seeing new coal and nuke plants being built. Why pollute with dirty coal or deal with nuclear waste when gas and oil are cheap and plentiful?

The federal government and the corporations are doing everything they can to keep the consumer price of oil and gas high so as to provide a big profit for the corporate elites. Admittedly these high prices make these newly accessible reserves of oil and gas profitable enough to keep up with the cost of extraction and transport. But anyone can see that the price of gasoline at the pump and the price of natural gas for the home are both slowly dropping.

This is happening because the demand for oil and natural gas in the US is steadily dropping, there are a number of reasons for this. One is a stagnant economy caused by the Great Recession that began in 2008, another is that energy efficiency, such as gas mileage for autos and power consumption by appliances such as computers and lightbulbs has dropped tremendously in recent years. Most important of all, a small but growing percentage of our energy needs are being met by solar and wind generators. These last of course are the future.

Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Burning, March 2011: Still Emitting Radiation Today Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Burning, March 2011: Still Emitting Radiation Today

But meanwhile the energy needs of the rest of the world are growing tremendously, particularly in places like China where most of our manufacturing is taking place. Oil, gas and coal are in demand around the world like never before, and Earth’s climate is suffering tremendously as a result. The good news is that in the wake of Fukushima and Chernobyl the world seems to be shying away from nuke plants, hopefully that will continue.

But before we Americans start to congratulate ourselves we need to remember that our 300 million people still consume about half of the world’s energy. Despite our incremental improvements the vast majority of that consumed energy remains fossil fuel. China and India may be getting bigger but they are still nowhere near as fat and wasteful as we are.

I was pleased to see that the rest of the Port of Albany was looking very busy. In past years the southern third of the Port looked derelict and unused, but now I see that the very end was being used for loading scrap metal. There is a big scrap metal operation directly across the river in Rensselaer, presumably this smaller operation on the Albany side is overflow from that.

Scrap Metal Recycling, Across The River In Rensselaer Scrap Metal Recycling, Across The River In Rensselaer

The transport of oil has become the biggest activity in the Port, but we can see that grain, which used to be the biggest mainstay, is still being moved at the Port. I’ve heard that in the future more grain may be moved through the Port on the way to foreign shores in the future, but that depends on a lot of factors such as geopolitics and the continued viability of US food production. In any case the Port is running out of room, there may be no place for grain transport to expand.

But today we could see from our vantage point at the water line that the transference of oil to barges on the Hudson River was being done in a clean and careful manner. We did not see any leakage, in fact we’ve never seen any actual oil at all. This is not like thirty years ago, when I recall reading in the local papers that there was so much spilled oil in the ground at the Port of Albany that the Port Commission was considering installing an oil well. Nothing came of that, but I wonder about that spilled oil. Is it still there, is it quietly leaking into the river?

The other important detail is that the Global oil barges are double hulled. All we need is one breached hull with a massive spill and large parts of the Hudson will be devastated and will not clean up for decades. Confronted with reality, the public along the Hudson Valley may very well be so appalled by the pollution that the rail and barge oil pipeline will be moved away from Albany and there go the economic benefits to this region.

The Tug Kathleen Turecamo, Now Busy Hauling Oil Barges For Global The Tug Kathleen Turecamo, Now Busy Hauling Oil Barges For Global

It’s not likely that this oil transport route is going to be replaced by an oil pipeline in the near future. I can’t imagine the construction of an east/west pipeline that swings south of Chicago toward New Jersey, the proposal would be fought to a standstill in a dozen different places along the route. I seriously doubt the pipeline would ever make it past Minneapolis.

I’m not convinced by the opinion of that gentleman on the barge that the Bakken oil is too sandy to transport by pipeline because, like I mentioned, some 17 percent of that oil is indeed being transported by pipe. But if he is right then piping sandy oil is a huge mistake that will create more and more environmental problems as the metal in the pipes disintegrate from the sand, which makes government approval of Bakken field pipelines a bad business for the nation.

Port Of Albany Seen From Across The Hudson River Port Of Albany Seen From Across The Hudson River

But really, are the economic benefits of this oil transport to Albany all that great? I have to confess that I don’t know and I have no idea where to look for such data if it exists. I suspect this is one of those Time Will Tell sort of things, we will see if this flow of oil through the South End will bring us some prosperity or bring us problems or do nothing notable for us. But I have to say I’m glad to see that the Port of Albany is busy.