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.

At Federal Energy Conference, Forecasts Predict Bright Future for Fossil Fuels

This year’s annual Energy Information Administration conference started off on a somewhat positive note with a presentation by Dr. John Holdren, the Obama administration director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren was clear in his presentation that the risks of climate change are real and deserve urgent action. 

He noted estimates of 15 feet of sea level rise being baked in with warming of only 2 degrees Celsius — a target that clearly will be difficult to meet. He commented on the following slide of predicted fossil fuel consumption growth as “very striking” and noted that “There really is no time to lose in shrinking emissions.”

Rail Industry Requests Massive Loophole in Oil-by-Rail Safety To Extend Bomb Trains Well Beyond 2025

In the most recent oil-by-rail accident in Mosier, Oregon the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) concluded that the tank cars involved — the jacketed CPC-1232 type — “performed as expected.” So an oil train derailing at the relatively slow speed of 25 mph should be “expected” to have breached cars resulting in fiery explosions.

Current regulations allow those tank cars to continue rolling on the track carrying volatile Bakken crude oil and ethanol until 2025 with no modifications.

Yet industry lobbying group the Railway Supply Institute (RSI) has now requested the Federal Railroad Administration to essentially allow these jacketed CPC-1232 tank cars to remain on the tracks for decades beyond 2025.

This was just one of the troubling facts that came to light at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) roundtable on tank car safety on July 13th, and perhaps the one of greatest concern to anyone living in an oil train blast zone like Mosier, Oregon.  

Are Oil Trains Just Too Heavy? No Regulations, No Weigh To Know

The cause of the most recent bomb train derailment and fire in Mosier, OR has been determined to be lag bolts that had sheared off resulting in the derailment. This once again raises concerns that the unit trains of oil are putting too much stress on the tracks due to their excessive weight and length. 

There is precedent for this issue according to rail consultant and former industry official Steven Ditmeyer. In the early 1990s, there was a similar problem with some double stacked container cars being too heavy for the infrastructure — because of overloaded containers — resulting in sheared rail spikes.

This sounds like a very similar circumstance to what was happening in the early 1990s with overloaded double stack container cars,” Ditmeyer told DeSmog.

So, since double stacked containers are currently in wide use but there are no longer derailment issues like in the 1990s, what changed?

American Petroleum Institute Forming Climate Change Task Force?

It isn’t hard to find critics of the American Petroleum Institute's CEO Jack Gerard in the community of people who care about the climate. However, it is perhaps telling that the Washington Post reported that when they asked oil industry insiders to describe him, one response was “Voldemart.” 

In addition to such “compliments” from his industry peers, the work Jack Gerard performs netted him over $13 million in 2013 alone. 

In that same Washington Post article it was noted that a former API board member said “for my taste the whole organization is far too aggressive.” But that board member probably doesn’t make $13 million a year.  

With the API producing slick ads with its Vote4Energy “energy voters” saying they “don't buy it” that fossil fuel energy is harmful to the environment, it is clear that the organization remains aggressive. 

Luck Rides The Rails: Another Near Miss with an "Insane" Bakken Oil Bomb Train

Luck was in abundance on Friday in Mosier, Oregon where the latest Bakken oil train derailed and erupted into flames near a 50-home residential area and a school. 

As Mosier Fire Chief Jim Appleton said, “Mosier really dodged a bullet in the last 24 hours.”

“I hope that this becomes death knell for this mode of shipping this cargo. I think it’s insane,” Appleton said. “I’ve been very hesitant to take a side up to now, but with this incident, and with all due respect to the wonderful people that I’ve met at Union Pacific, shareholder value doesn’t outweigh the lives and happiness of our community.”

It's a familiar story to those following the Bakken oil “bomb train” saga — luck.

If I had been there another second, it’d probably have killed me,” Bounds said. “Glass was flying everywhere behind me. The walls were caving in. I hadn’t run like that in years.”

That was Morris Bounds describing to The Spokesman Review how he barely escaped the derailing Bakken oil train that destroyed his home in Mount Carbon, West Virginia in February 2015. He literally saw the train derailing and ran out his front door as the train wiped out his house behind him. 

You don’t get much luckier than Morris Bounds. Or his wife, who happened to be in the hospital that day instead of at home. 

Later that year when another Bakken oil train derailed in a residential neighborhood in Watertown, Wisconsin but did not ignite, Sarah Feinberg, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, declared, “We feel we got really lucky.”  

Top Obama Energy Official Says Administration Rejects “Keep It In The Ground” As Climate Strategy

We’re certainly not advocating any strategy for reducing hydrocarbon emissions by keeping oil in the ground…that’s not a position.” 

This was the response of Christopher A. Smith when he was asked what he thought of the “growing movement of keeping oil in the ground” at the 2016 Columbia Global Energy Summit in April.

Since Chris Smith worked for more than a decade for Chevron and Texaco, this answer should not surprise anyone. 

However, Chris Smith now works for President Obama as assistant secretary of fossil energy, so when he says “we’re certainly not advocating” he is referring to the fact that the Obama Administration’s Department of Energy does not support any strategy to keep oil in the ground. 

And if you think Mr. Smith isn’t in a position of authority in the Obama administration when it comes to oil policy, you might want to consider how he was introduced at the event by moderator Antoine Halff:

The Crude Oil "Bomb Train" Story: Profits Over Safety

I would agree with the opponents. This is not about saving jobs…This is about profits. But gee, what is wrong with profits?”

Those were the words of San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioner Jim Irving, explaining why he was voting for a project to build a rail spur to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery so that the refinery can receive oil by rail

It is a safe bet that Jim Irving hasn’t been to Lac-Megantic, where almost three years ago a very profitable oil train derailed and exploded in the middle of downtown. The immediate damage was 47 lives lost, a massive oil spill, and the burning and contamination of the town center. 

Nearly three years later, the downtown has yet to be rebuilt. And as we reported on DeSmog, there were many reasons the Lac-Megantic accident occurred. Averting any one of them could have prevented the accident. All were the result of corporate cost-cutting that put profits ahead of safety.

Dear President Obama: Film Presses For Climate Action As Time Runs Out On Obama Term

Jon Bowermaster’s new film Dear President Obama is essentially an open letter to President Obama asking him to start taking climate change seriously and put an end to his “all of the above” energy policy. 

Throughout the film, the audience is reminded of just how difficult this will be to accomplish due to the state of politics and policy polarization in America. 

Gasland director Josh Fox is featured at various points in the film, and he gets to the heart of the matter in one of his comments saying, “We are not living in a democracy at the current time and the oil and gas industry has a lot to do with that.”

Later a woman from Pennsylvania reiterates this point saying, “It is our elected officials. They turned their backs on us. That is who I blame first. Because they allowed it.”

However, the most telling comment is from Rod from Longmont, Colorado, a farmer seen onscreen feeding his chickens when he says, “I’ve been told by my Congressman Jared Polis, he came out and…you know what he told me? It’s time to sell out.” 

Rail Safety Report Card: Only 225 Of Over 100,000 Unsafe Tank Cars Were Retrofitted in First Year

A year ago, when Federal regulators announced new rules for “high hazard” trains moving crude oil and ethanol, the oil industry protested that the rules were too strict. The main point of contention made by the American Petroleum Institute (API) was that the requirement to retrofit the unsafe DOT-111 and DOT-1232 tank cars within ten years did not allow enough time to get the job done.

Meanwhile, according to information recently provided to DeSmog by the Association of American Railroads, only 225 of the tank cars have been retrofitted in the past year. So, the API may have been onto something because at that rate it will take roughly 500 years to retrofit the entire fleet of DOT-111s and CPC-1232s based on government and industry estimates of fleet size of approximately 110,000.

New York Serves As Battleground for Oil and Gas Infrastructure Fights

When New York state banned fracking in 2015, it was a blow to the oil and gas industry. But it didn’t slow industry plans to continue to build out new oil and gas infrastructure in New York.

However, in another setback for the industry, Governor Cuomo’s administration just denied permits for the proposed Constitution pipeline — a pipeline that would have brought fracked gas from Pennsylvania into New York — which has effectively killed the project.

Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan also just announced it is shelving plans to build the natural gas pipeline known as Northeast Direct due to “inadequate capacity commitments from prospective customers.”  

These two decisions were celebrated by the many concerned citizens in New York who have been fighting new oil and gas infrastructure in the state.

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