Justin Mikulka

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Justin Mikulka is a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Albany, NY.

Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

“We Need Not Be Polite” Hears First National Conference On Oil Train Threats

oil train conference

On November 12th, I boarded a train headed to Pittsburgh, PA to attend the first national independent gathering focused on the topic of oil trains. The trip would take me through Philadelphia where an Amtrak train crashed in May resulting in eight fatalities and over 200 injuries. 

There is general consensus that the accident would have been avoided if positive train control technology had been in place. In 2008, Congress mandated that positive train control be installed by the end of 2015. However, the railroads failed to do this and were recently given a three to five year extension by Congress after the rail companies threatened to shut down rail service if the mandate were enforced.

Poll Shows African Americans Support Clean Power Plan and Climate Action, But Not Exxon-Funded National Black Chamber of Commerce

One tactic of the fossil fuel industry’s attack on the proposed Clean Power Plan is to say it unfairly targets minority communities when in fact the opposite is true. Industry-funded groups like the National Black Chamber of Commerce are among the groups making these claims.

In the past National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC) president Harry Alford dismissed climate change by quoting Stevie Wonder, saying, “When you believe in things you don't understand; you suffer. Superstition ain't the way.”

And while Alford may equate science to superstition, there is no doubt that he understands one thing very well – collecting oil industry money. The NBCC has received over $1 million from ExxonMobil alone.

Breaking: Trans-Pacific Partnership Ignores Climate, Asks Countries to Volunteer to Protect the Environment

In March, the White House was touting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) on its blog stating:

Through TPP, the Obama administration is doubling down on its commitment to use every tool possible to address the most pressing environmental challenges.”

Reviewing the environment section of the just-released TPP, one thing becomes quite clear. Climate change is not considered one of the “most pressing environmental challenges.”

Risky Shale Oil-by-Rail Expands Despite Lack of Spill Response Preparedness

The worst onshore oil spill in United States history was the Kalamazoo River tar sands pipeline spill in 2010 with estimates of one million gallons of oil spilled. In comparison, the oil-by-rail accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec was 50% bigger.

With the oil-by-rail industry proposing large expansions to West Coast destinations, it is understandable that some local communities are worried about the risks of a spill causing major environmental damage and threatening human health.

Shutdown Spin: Oil and Coal Industries Confident Congress Will Concede to Rail Industry

When it comes to effective lobbying groups, the American Petroleum Institute has to be near the top of the list with its relentless quest to preserve oil company profits at all costs. However, with the current threat of a rail shutdown over the rail industry’s failure to implement positive train control (PTC), which would effectively shut down much of North Dakota’s Bakken oil production, the API isn’t getting involved.  

Apparently they aren’t worried. As masters of the game of spinning stories for profit, perhaps the API knows a good bit of spin when it sees one.

Ivy League Universities Pushing Oil Industry Agenda With No Accountability

Columbia CGEP Oil Export Debate

Harold Hamm isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to be name dropping Ivy League schools. Born in Oklahoma, his education ended with his graduation from high school. Which didn’t stop him from becoming a multi-billionaire by building his own oil and gas fracking company, Continental Resources — a company that bills itself as “America’s Oil Champion.”

So for a self-made man from oil country, it wasn’t surprising to see a PowerPoint slide with the bullet points “Rigs, Rednecks, and Royalties” during his presentation this June at the annual Energy Information Administration conference in Washington, D.C. Although when he referred to the oil producing sections of the U.S. as “Cowboyistan” it didn’t get the laugh he was probably expecting.

Pre-emption: How and Why Rail Companies Are Above The Law

CSX is one of the major rail companies that is profiting from the oil-by-rail boom led by North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil. On September 28th, a day that is apparently national “good neighbor day,” CSX broadcast the following message on Twitter.

Oil-by-Rail Giant BNSF Threatens Shutdown Over Safety

In June of 2014, a representative of oil-by-rail giant Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) attended a meeting with regulators where the American Association of Railroads (AAR) lobbied against any speed limits for oil trains. One of the slides from that presentation – titled “Far Reaching Economic Impacts” (image below) — predicted dire consequences to the American economy if speed limits were put in place.

There was no mention of the safety benefits of such a speed limit in the presentation. 

And now BNSF is back at it, informing regulators that if a congressionally mandated requirement from 2008 that requires all railroads to implement positive train control (PTC) by the end of 2015 isn’t extended, they may just shut down BNSF.

Half a Million California Students Attend School In Oil Train Blast Evacuation Zones

A new analysis by the Center for Biological Diversity finds that 500,000 students in California attend schools within a half-mile of rail tracks used by oil trains, and more than another 500,000 are within a mile of the tracks.

Railroad disasters shouldn’t be one of the ‘three Rs’ on the minds of California school kids and their parents,” said Valerie Love with the Center. “Oil trains have jumped the tracks and exploded in communities across the country. These dangerous bomb trains don’t belong anywhere near California’s schools or our children.”

Filmmaker Jon Bowermaster Fights for the Environment From the Hudson to Antarctica

Jon Bowermaster spent ten years kayaking oceans and waterways all around the globe in an effort to document and understand the relationship between humans and the oceans for a National Geographic project. Understandably, he has a lot of stories to tell and shared many when DeSmog recently sat down to talk with him about his various upcoming projects.

We were on a remote island off of Croatia one time and turned a corner in the kayaks and pulled up on what would have been this beautiful beach and it was just knee deep in trash,” Bowermaster recounted. “And a woman was standing on the shore and was throwing it back in the water. And we asked her why she was doing that and she said, ‘Well that’s where it belongs.’”