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.

New Oil-By-Rail Regulations Are Big Win for Oil and Rail Industries, Won’t Stop “Bomb Trains”

The long-awaited oil-by-rail regulations released today are basically a guidebook for the oil and rail industries to continue doing business as usual when it comes to moving explosive Bakken crude oil by rail.

DeSmog recently reported on how the Obama administration has worked behind the scenes to help achieve the oil industry’s top goal when it came to these new regulations — allowing the oil producers to continue to put the highly volatile Bakken crude oil into rail tank cars without removing the natural gas liquids that make it such an explosive mixture.

As we’ve reported, there is a relatively simple fix to end, or significantly reduce, the “bomb train” disasters, via a process known as stabilization.

Why Was The White House Involved in North Dakota Oil-by-Rail Regulations?

A seemingly innocuous email about two people getting coffee in August of 2014 helps shed light on the behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts to shape the oil-by-rail regulations that have given the oil industry a pass on the explosive nature of Bakken crude oil.

The emails, acquired by DeSmogBlog via a Freedom of Information Act request, led us to discover a troubling trail of influence from the Beltway to the Bakken. It's a sordid tale wherein public safety is needlessly compromised by the threat of “bomb trains” while the government ignores a simple fix to safeguard communities in favor of enabling runaway profits for the oil and rail industries.

New Report Warns of West Coast Tar Sands Oil Invasion

The West Coast of the United States and Canada is facing an imminent tar sands oil invasion, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“The West Coast is about to fall victim to a tar sands invasion, unless our leaders choose to protect the health and safety of our communities and say no to Big Oil,” said Anthony Swift, deputy director of NRDC's Canada Project. “At a time when the nation is moving toward a clean energy future, there is no reason to welcome the dirtiest oil on the planet into our communities.”

While the West Coast is not currently the destination for much tar sands oil, the area’s heavy oil refining capacity and deepwater port access make it a likely destination for large amounts of Canadian tar sands oil in the future.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) forecasts that tar sands supply will increase from 2.4 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2013 to 6.2 million bpd by 2030. To achieve those volumes, a significant portion of that oil would have to go to the West Coast by a combination of pipelines, rail and tanker.

Congresswoman Declares Pipeline and Oil-by-Rail Regulatory System "Fundamentally Broken"

The system is fundamentally broken.”

Those were the words of Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) during an April 14th hearing on oil-by-rail and pipeline safety.

For anyone expecting the soon to be released oil-by-rail regulations to make any meaningful improvements to safety, it would be wise to review the full comments made by Rep. Speier.

Science vs Spin: Dilbit Sinks in the Real World, But Not in Studies Funded by Oil Industry

EPA Kalamazoo River Cleanup

Once the oil started to sink, it made things a lot more difficult on our recovery.”

Those were the words of Greg Powell of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during his presentation on March 10th at the National Academy of Sciences conference on the Effects of Diluted Bitumen on the Environment. Powell was one of the people involved in the response and clean up of the Kalamazoo River tar sands dilbit spill in 2010 where an Enbridge pipeline cracked and spilled approximately one million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan.

Rail Industry Lobbied Against New Oil-by-Rail Safety Regulations The Day After Rail Accident

With the recent run of exploding oil train accidents, it isn’t surprising that the rail industry has publicly expressed concern about hauling highly flammable oils like Bakken light crude and diluted tar sands. But that's all the industry has done: express concern. It certainly hasn't done anything to act on its concerns.

For instance, Hunter Harrison, CEO of Canadian Pacific railway and the man who is on record as saying that regulators “overreacted” to the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster, recently said Canadian Pacific might get out of the oil hauling business.

“Our board of directors looked at this very carefully and said, ‘what kind of exposure do we have and what kind of exposure are we [exposing] the public to by hauling some of these commodities?’” Harrison told BNN television. “And in spite of the bottom line—and I was very proud—we’ve sat back and said we might get out of this business.”

Of course, Hunter Harrison is a savvy businessman who has a record of relentless pursuit of profit. Harrison knows full well that the common carrier laws that apply to rail shipments make it so that he would have to shut down Canadian Pacific if he wanted to get out of the oil hauling business. Which isn’t likely.

What is more likely is that, just like rail company BNSF’s early 2014 public relations stunt in which the company said it was buying 5,000 safer rail cars to haul oil but then never did, Harrison is also just feeding the media a good story.

Because two days after Harrison was telling the media he wanted out of the oil hauling business, and one day after the exploding oil train accident in Galena, Illinois, Glen Wilson, Canadian Pacific’s Vice President of Safety, Environmental and Regulatory Affairs, was in Washington, D.C. lobbying against new oil train safety regulations.

Tar Sands by Rail Disasters: The Latest Wave in the Bomb Train Assault

With the first crash and explosion of a unit train of tar sands oil in Canada in February, we learned that the conventional wisdom among people covering the oil-by-rail industry regarding the flammability of tar sands oil has been dead wrong. A second derailment and explosion on March 7th involved synbit, which is a form of bitumen diluted with synthetic crude oil.

While there are many examples of this mischaracterization of the dangers of moving tar sands by rail that can be found in the press, here at DeSmogBlog we didn’t have to look far. In an article last year about how to make Bakken crude less dangerous we wrote that the government had plans to allow tar sands oil to be transported in the unsafe DOT-111 rail tank cars “because it is not explosive.”

While raw bitumen from the Alberta tar sands is not volatile or highly flammable, when it is diluted with natural gas condensate to form a mixture known as dilbit, which is typically done to make it easier to transport, it appears that it can be as dangerous as the Bakken crude that has now been proven to be highly flammable and explosive in multiple train derailments.

An article in Railway Age pointing out the implications of the tar-sands-by-rail accident had the ominous title “Why bitumen isn’t necessarily safer than Bakken” and concluded with the statement that “Should TSB [Transportation Safety Board] conclude that dilbit has a volatility similar to Bakken crude, as the Alberta research suggests, the hazmat classification of crude oil could be in question.”

Exploding Trains, No New Regulations, Record Industry Profits: The Oil-by-Rail Story

A month ago there was a close call for the oil-by-rail industry. As part of the Cromnibus bill that President Obama signed in December, new oil-by-rail regulations were supposed to be finalized and implemented by regulators by January 15th.

Two days before that deadline, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency responsible for new regulations, posted new documents on their website related to recent meetings between PHMSA and various oil and rail industry lobbyists.

They did not issue a press release about these meetings, unlike the meetings a year ago when the industry volunteered to try improving its safety record and there was plenty of publicity.

And then it was announced that new regulations would once again be delayed, this time until May 2015.

Since that delay an ethanol train has derailed resulting in burning rail cars and ethanol spilling into the Mississippi River. An oil train derailed and caught fire in Gogama, Canada. And another oil train of Bakken crude oil derailed, exploded, and leaked oil into the Kanawha River near Mount Carbon, West Virginia.

Singing Industry’s Tune: How Rep. Jeff Denham Plans to Delay Oil-by-Rail Safety Improvements

Vintage effect applied to fast moving freight train

I just want to make sure that we are all singing the same tune that we have a very safe industry and we want to work together on improving that industry.”

Those were the words of Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials on February 3rd at a hearing titled “How the Changing Energy Markets Will Affect U.S. Transportation.” He was directing this advice to Greg Saxton, chief engineer for rail tank car manufacturer Greenbrier.

Denham obviously had a bone to pick with Saxton because prior to the hearing the Modesto Bee, a newspaper in Denham’s home district, ran an editorial making a strong case that the existing tank cars used to transport crude oil are unsafe. The editorial, “Delays on safer rail cars are unacceptable,” didn’t mince words. It was clear on what should happen: “The DOT [Department of Transportation] should adopt rules for those cars then set deadlines to replace every single tank car in America. Our elected representatives should insist on it.”

In Modesto, the elected representative who should be insisting on that is Jeff Denham.

Modesto is also home to Greenbrier’s manufacturing facilities and the editorial quoted Saxton for its conclusion noting his position on the lack of new regulations. “We just need a decision. Twenty years is too long.”

This is not the tune that Chairman Denham wants everyone to be singing. In his comments to Saxton at the hearing he explained his intent.

South Dakota Sen. John Thune Stumps For Oil-by-Rail Industry

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, recently got a bit overzealous in stumping for the oil and rail industries at a Jan. 28 hearing on freight rail challenges.

Thune stated that he believes the timeline in the proposed rule to retrofit and replace the dangerous DOT-111 tank cars used to carry oil by rail is “unattainable.” These are the same DOT-111 tank cars that were first called unsafe by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) over 20 years ago.

But simply giving the industry decades to respond to safety concerns wasn’t enough for Thune. Apparently Thune failed to read the proposed regulations he was criticizing when he made the following statement, “The DOT [Department of Transportation] issued this proposed rule without analyzing the potential tank car shop capacity needed to retrofit or replace over 100,000 DOT-111 tank cars.”

Here are some excerpts from those proposed regulations.

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