Urban Activism, Emotion, Intellectual Honesty, and Opportunity Cost

A prominent feature issue among Albany urbanist and activist-y types recently has been the battle against Canadian Pacific’s plan to bring increasing numbers of trains loaded with crude oil to a transloading facility at the Port of Albany. Concern about the inherently polluting and noxious nature of oil, mixed with a reasonable level of fear over the recent rash of horrifying derailments of trains carrying crude, has led to the tossing around of rhetoric about “bomb trains” and “environmental justice” (the trains often sit outside Kenwood Yard limits, adjacent to some of Albany’s poorest neighborhoods). Activists have demanded–and gotten–a review of the state DEC’s previously pro-forma approval of the heating and transloading facility. It’s an inspiring urban crusade.

I wonder, though, if this is the best way for Albany activists to be spending their energy. In an ideal world, certainly, trains would not be carrying crude oil into our city. Some of the details of the proposal, however, have gotten lost in the furor. While Global Companies, the company sponsoring the shipments, has refused to publicly say where the crude is coming from, Scott Waldman of Capital New York wrote in the article linked to above that it is expected to be “Heavy crude from the Tar Sands of Western Canada, which needs to be heated to be transferred off of a train car…Albany deputy fire chief Frank Nerney said company officials told him heavy crude would be heated at the facility.” It’s worth considering the immediate environmental risks posed by heavy, as opposed to light, crude. Fred Frailey writes in the February Trains magazine (certainly an industry-friendly publication, albeit one more concerned with the interests of the railroads than of the oil industry) that “Both the Lac-Megantic and Aliceville accidents involved light sweet crude that originated in North Dakota. As for tar-like bitumen, you could probably hit it with a flamethrower with no explosive effects.” (“Five myths about crude oil by rail,” Feburary 2014 Trains) Bitumen, of course, is what is probably going to be brought into Albany under the current proposal. I don’t begrudge local activists their opposition to the operation (in fact, I agree that it probably shouldn’t happen), but not considering some of the technical factors involved doesn’t cast us in a particularly good light. Throwing around phrases like “bomb trains,” when in fact the crude at play is not explosive until heated (and off the train), is anti-intellectual emotional manipulation that undercuts our credibility as activists and affected residents. Let’s debate the merits of the project that exists, not some straw man out of our worst fears.

Which brings me to my other point. How is it that this issue, above all of the other challenges facing the city of Albany, has captured the public’s imagination? We live in a city with hundreds of abandoned properties, with inadequate city services, with creaky, minimally functional infrastructure, and with severe social dislocation between city and suburbs. We live in a city where someone who’s not able-bodied and is reliant on public transit can’t get around when there’s snow on the ground because no one bothers to shovel the bus stops. We live in a country where approximately 35,200 people died in car crashes last year. The images of the leveled center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec are horrific, and the images of fireballs going up from derailed oil trains are seared into all of our minds, but for all of the fear that inspires, fewer than 100 people, and probably fewer than 60 (I can’t find the numbers easily available online), died in accidents related to railroads and crude oil shipment last year in all of North America. Where’s the outrage about traffic deaths? Where’s the horror at our citizens’ lack of mobility? Where’s the organizing around these issues? The fight against the crude transshipment plan is a worthwhile one, but I fear the opportunity cost is too great. We’re sending the message that rather than organize about the mundane, but much more immediate, dangers in our everyday lives, we should be scared of ways of dying that are truly spectacular, but vanishingly unlikely. Are those the priorities we want to set?

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