Recent Developments in Crude Oil by Rail Shipments Along Lake Champlain

By Mark Malchoff, Aquatic Resources Specialist
January 14, 2020

In 2014, New York Governor Cuomo directed state agencies to conduct a coordinated review of New York State’s crude oil incident prevention and response capacity. The review was in response to a dramatic increase in crude oil transport by rail throughout the United States. Significant volumes of domestic crude oil derived from shale oil formations are recovered primarily through hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). In the U.S., major organic-rich oil-bearing shale formations include the Bakken and Niobrara shales in the eastern plains of the Rocky Mountains region and the Eagle Ford shale in Texas. Bakken “shale oil” from North Dakota, in particular, garnered numerous headlines from about 2004 to 2014 as a result of rapid growth in the development, production, and transport of this material. The New York State review reported that in just one year (2011-2012), the volume [total U.S. crude oil] transported by rail rose 423 percent from 6.5 million to 34.2 million barrels.

In New York State, two major rail lines transport crude oil across some 21 counties and converge in Albany. A February 28, 2014 New York Times article reported that these two lines were estimated to carry 20 to 25 percent of all Bakken rail export in 2014. CSX operates a rail line that runs across central New York to Albany and south along the western shore of the Hudson River toward New Jersey and Pennsylvania refineries. CP Rail transits the length of Lake Champlain’s western shoreline, bringing crude oil from Montreal to Albany. Both CSX and CP rail have employed unit trains (e.g., 100 tank cars with 30,000 gallons/car) along these routes. A Plattsburgh Press-Republican article reported that emergency services staff in Essex County, New York estimated that about 25 unit oil trains per week traveled through Essex County along the Lake Champlain shoreline in early 2015.

Although records of the volume of crude oil transported by rail at the state level are difficult to obtain, anecdotal information suggests that rail traffic along the New York shoreline of Lake Champlain has markedly declined since 2015. A decline in crude oil transport along Lake Champlain despite continued increases in U.S. crude oil production seems puzzling (Figure 1). What would explain this trend? Information from the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) offers several clues.

Graph showing increase in U.S. and North Dakota crude oil production from 2004 to 2018

According to AAR, “growth in pipeline capacity, a narrowing in the [price] spread between domestic and imported oil, and other factors has led to a sharp decline in rail shipments of crude oil. After peaking in 2014, originated carloads of crude oil on U.S. Class I railroads fell to 128,967 in 2017, 74 percent lower than in 2014.” Regional trends in crude oil shipments from the Midwest to the East Coast are equally dramatic and noteworthy, since this is the scenario by which Bakken crude oil is delivered through New York (including the Champlain corridor) to east coast refineries (Figure 2).

Graph showing east coast crude oil receipts by rail for 2010 to 2019

Similarly, shipments of Canadian crude oil to the U.S. east coast region rose steadily from 2012 peaking at just over three million barrels in late 2014. Shipments declined to nearly zero in 2016 but have since increased to about two million barrels in late 2019.

So what has been the fate of the “missing” oil? A logical guess is that pipeline shipments from the Midwest to Gulf Coast regions have largely replaced rail-based shipments of North Dakota-Bakken Formation crude oil transiting central and eastern New York State (Figure 3). It is likely that much of the oil volume is now carried by the Dakota access pipeline, which was designed to move Bakken sourced crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois, and in turn to Nederland Terminal in Texas via the Energy Transfer Crude Oil pipeline. Dakota Access became commercially operational on June 1, 2017, and carries in excess of 470,000 barrels per day of crude oil.

Graph showing Gulf Coast crude oil receipts from Midwest for 2010 to 2019

Regardless of recent patterns of crude oil movement adjacent to Lake Champlain, managers and safety officials are very much cognizant of the environmental impact of a potential derailment and tank car spill in the Champlain basin. While crude oil spills in freshwater environments are rare, serious impairments to aquatic organisms and habitats would inevitably occur with resulting mortality, fish deformities, and lower growth rates in animals. To that end, Region 1 EPA staff organized a Lake Champlain Joint Response Exercise event, September 10 and 11, 2019 in Port Henry, New York. The event was hosted by CP Rail, Essex County Office of Emergency Services (OES), and other personnel/volunteers with hazardous materials responsibilities. Additional partners included: US Coast Guard (Sector Northern New England and Station Burlington), New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control, Clinton County OES, Washington County OES, and others. The objectives of the event were to:

  • Exercise multi-Agency coordination of Unified Command for development of strategies (collection and protection) for response to a simulated environmental event impacting the lake;
  • Exercise the coordination for deployment of local public-sector and locally available private sector response equipment during the initial hours of a spill;
  • Simulate a spill scenario, and exercise deployment of boom and related equipment (public and/or private sector resources);

Lake Champlain Sea Grant (LCSG) staff were invited to participate in this exercise by the EPA. LCSG Program Leader Kristine Stepenuck and Specialist Mark Malchoff served as evaluators and provided feedback on the effectiveness of the simulated response efforts.

Lake Champlain Sea Grant also continues to stay involved with crude oil transport issues, as well as spills associated with boating. LCSG has partnered with the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network, Great Lakes Commission, and the International Joint Commission to increase understanding of the complex suite of opportunities and risks posed by crude oil transport along Lake Champlain and other critical northern watersheds. The Crude Move research and extension program began in 2014 with a commitment from the Great Lakes Sea Grant directors to better understand these vital issues, which present a “wicked problem” for the economic and environmental well-being of the region. The goal of this program is to provide stakeholders with resources on economic and environmental issues associated with transportation of crude oil in the Laurentian-Great Lakes basin and to create a forum for them to share knowledge, concerns, challenges, and progress.

Major program efforts to-date include:

  • A June 2017 Crude Move Symposium, which featured presentations on Great Lakes-focused research topics related to crude oil transportation, infrastructure, economics, hazards, and risks. 
  • A series of 8 now archived webinars dealing with information and resources on Great Lakes crude oil transport.

Additional information on these outreach, research and educational activities may be found on the Great Lakes Sea Grant Crude Oil Transport website.

Sea Grant has also tapped into graduate student efforts to improve community planning and responses to spills. University of Vermont graduate student Jason Scott is currently working on a Master’s project to increase preparedness for oil and hazardous material spills into Lake Champlain. He is working on several fronts to integrate Lake Champlain Sea Grant and academia into the spill response community.

On May 1, 2019, Jason organized and facilitated an Oil Spill Symposium in Burlington, VT. More than twenty marina owners and operators, emergency managers, and fire department personnel learned about fuel oil spill prevention and response techniques. The workshop was organized as a follow-up to a 2017 LCSG survey which revealed a lack of experience with oil spill response equipment at marinas and a need for clarification on current regulations. Instructors from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Coast Guard covered health and safety, state and federal regulations, and waste management topics. After the classroom session, personnel from the National Response Corporation (NRC), the world’s largest oil spill response organization, displayed equipment, including a containment boom, skimmer, and vacuum truck, and demonstrated how to deploy the equipment in the lake to clean up oil spills.

Jason is also working on building a scientific support network for the Champlain Valley. He recently completed a survey of federal, state, and local response agencies to gather information about important scientific expertise, information, and equipment that would be valuable to an Incident Management Team during the response to an oil spill or natural disaster affecting Lake Champlain. The information provided in this survey will be used to assemble a database of scientific support resources that may be accessed by responders during an incident. The database will be readily accessible to the response community and will include names, organizations, contact information, and available expertise or capabilities. This list will be published on Lake Champlain Sea Grant website.

He will be writing a new section of the Lake Champlain Contingency plan. This plan is a federally-mandated document signed in 2016 that serves as the primary response guidance document for government agencies and industry partners. He will be reviewing and synthesizing hydrography and weather data to develop a physical description of the lake.  Planners and responders must understand how and where oil will move within the lake because it will not likely be contained immediately, and responders will need to try and get ahead of the spill. Jason intends to develop a summary of wind patterns, surface currents, lake levels, and river/stream inputs. This new plan section will inform responders about the conditions they can expect when responding to a spill in the Champlain Valley and influence planning efforts to increase the effectiveness of Geographic Response Plans (GRP’s).