Written by Maeve McKaig
Over the past decade, there has been a massive oil and natural gas boom across the United States due to the introduction of hydraulic fracturing, a controversial new form of horizontal drilling. To keep up with rising production, fossil fuel infrastructure has rapidly expanded, including the construction of controversial pipelines and an increased use of oil trains and oil tankers.
The Hudson Valley is experiencing the environmental impacts of this oil boom, as oil transported from the Bakken Shale Regions of North Dakota is moving through the Hudson Valley. The oil travels through pipelines from the Bakken Shale the Port of Albany. There, it could be transported through the Hudson Valley through three main mechanisms: trains, proposed pipelines, and barges. The end goal for all of the oil is export terminals in NYC and near Philadelphia. Expansions started in 2011, before which there was no crude oil being transported on the River. According to Riverkeeper, whose mission is to safeguard the Hudson River, the amount of crude oil being transported on the river has increased to 2.8 billion gallons per year.
Transporting oil has never been known for guaranteed safety. As much as 400,000 barrels of Bakken Oil heads to the East Coast a day, increasing the chance of a devastating spill. The oil from the Bakken Shale is highly volatile, which means that if there was a train derailment in our backyard, it could cause a deadly explosion like the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, where a Canadian train carrying Bakken Oil exploded and killed 42 people. Given that the train line carrying the Bakken Oil runs through cities such as Kingston and passes through schools and environmental justice communities, the trains are referred to as “bomb trains.” Tar Sands oil, the other oil transported through on anchorages in the Hudson River, is denser than water. Therefore, if there was an accident, the oil would sink in the Hudson, making it almost impossible to clean up after a spill. Such a spill would destroy the Hudson River for our lifetimes, reversing decades of cleanup work and setting back the Hudson River for generations.
The Hudson River has been a symbol of the modern environmental movement since 1962 when Con Edison proposed a hydroelectric plant which would have destroyed Storm King Mountain. The battle was a landmark case, which created environmental law and is credited as one of the births of the modern environmental movement. Today, the Hudson River is in the midst of a recovery. After centuries of being used as a dump for industrial waste, the Hudson River became one of the largest superfund sites in the country. The fish were unable to eat and citizens were warned to not swim in the Hudson. Now, the River is slowly recovering and moving away from its industrial past. The resurgence of oil transportation on the Hudson is a move back towards its environmentally destructive past and taking on the risk of a full blown reversal in the case of a derailment or spill.
The most recent threat to the Hudson was a proposal by the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)–prompted by the Maritime Association of New York, the New Jersey’s Tug & Barge Committee, the Hudson River Port Pilot’s Association, and the American Waterways Operators–to establish new anchorages for commercial vessels. If carried out, there would have been 43 new berths in 10 locations from Yonkers to Kingston, covering 2400 acres. These berths would allow an increase in oil transportation on the Hudson. However, before approval, the USCG was required by law to hold a public comment period. The USCG’s solicitation of public comments closed on December 6, 2016, after six month period with submissions of over 10,000 comments, 34 local resolutions against the proposal passed, and a 39-page letter from Riverkeeper.
In June of 2017, after pressure from a coalition of environmental and community groups, the state assembly passed legislation that would allow the state to develop conditions and rules for petroleum bearing vessels on the Hudson River. The bill was sponsored by Sue Serino (R) and Didi Barrett (D), a Republican and a Democrat who are representatives of the Bard area. The law allows the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) and the Department of State (DOS) to do the following: 1) establish guidelines for petroleum bearing vessels moving on the Hudson and/or entering and leaving any major facility/port/harbor; 2) establish guidelines for tanker avoidance zones, where it would be illegal for vessels to be on the Hudson; 3) requires DEC, with DOS and Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, to develop a report on the movement of petroleum-bearing vessels on the Hudson. Governor Cuomo signed the bill into law on October 24.
A week after the legislation was passed, the USCG withdrew the proposal and announced that a Ports and Waterways Safety Assessment of the Hudson River will be conducted. This means that the river is safe from the originally proposed anchorages, but crude oil transport remains a threat.
This legislation is a victory for environmentalists and lovers of the scenic Hudson River. The Hudson Valley is one of the few places in the United States where both Republicans and Democrats are environmentalists. Given the region’s environmentalist legacy, it is almost a prerequisite to be one. Historically, the Republican party has been against the environment. Most of the large anti-environmental laws were passed under Nixon in the early 1970s, and one of the most famous conservationist presidents, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., was a Republican. Due to this context, our representatives are able to be pressured on issues regarding the environment. This example shows that Serino has been willing to stand up for the local environment and represent the difference between national and local politics in the Hudson Valley when it comes to the environment.
In an era under the most anti-environmental President with a cabinet of fossil fuel promoters, a return to local politics and a focus on fighting fossil fuels and climate change in our own backyards is essential. Remember, it was our district’s state senator who sponsored the bill!