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.

Bernie Sanders Calls for National Fracking Ban, Addresses Fracking Related Methane Pollution

As Bernie Sanders attempts an upset in New York’s April 19th primary, he has begun to increase his focus on the issues of fracking and climate change.

And since the state of New York banned fracking in 2015 and a recent Gallup poll reports only 25% of Democrats nationwide support fracking this would appear to be smart politics.

In his second of three rallies across New York on April 11th, Sanders took the time to address the issue and highlight the major differences on the issue between himself and Secretary Clinton for the audience in Albany. With the number of anti-fracking signs in the building, the strong response to the message was not surprising.

Sanders introduced the topic noting that when it came to fracking he and Clinton have “some very significant differences” and then congratulated the people of New York for standing up to the fossil fuel industry to ban fracking.

While Lobbying Against Safety Regulations, Exxon Admits to Potential for Stranded Assets

After learning that Exxon misled the world about its advanced understanding of climate change science for decades, it shouldn’t be too surprising to learn that the company is being less than truthful about what the reality of climate change means to its oil-based business model now.

In the wake of the Paris Agreement to meet or beat a two degree Celsius limit on global warming, the science is clear that to achieve this goal, a lot of known fossil fuel reserves will have to remain in the ground. From the industry's perspective, that will mean “stranded” assets.

And while groups like Ceres have made progress to get oil and gas companies to acknowledge this reality via investor led efforts, Exxon has adamantly claimed that none of its assets will be stranded.

New Poll Finds Growing Opposition To Fracking

A new study from Stanford has confirmed that fracking operations are contaminating drinking water sources in Wyoming.

“This is a wake-up call,” said lead author Dominic DiGiulio, a visiting scholar at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “It's perfectly legal to inject stimulation fluids into underground drinking water resources. This may be causing widespread impacts on drinking water resources.”

Of course this comes soon after a Pennsylvania jury awarded $4.24 million to two families in Dimock, PA who sued Cabot Oil for contaminating their drinking water via fracking operations. And a new study that has found fracking — and not just frack waste injection — is causing earthquakes in Canada.

Reuters recently reported that Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy revealed that, “Methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas sector are substantially higher than we previously understood.”

So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that a new poll from Gallup finds that opposition to fracking among the American public has increased in the past year and now a majority of Americans oppose fracking.

New Pilgrim Oil Pipeline Proposed for New York and New Jersey Raises Many Questions

It isn’t hard to find news these days about how the crash in oil prices is impacting investment in new oil infrastructure and development. Headlines like “Big oil to cut investment again in 2016” and “Big Banks Brace for Oil Loans to Implode” appear regularly.

So why is a group fronted by two former Koch Industries executives moving forward with plans to build a new oil pipeline from Albany, NY to Linden, NJ? That is a good question. And the lack of answers as the permitting process moves forward is troubling.  

The actual proposal is for two pipelines. One to supposedly handle Bakken crude oil that arrives in Albany by train. The other would return refined products to Albany from Linden, NJ.

Investors Urge Oil Companies to Stress Test Portfolios Against Two Degree Scenario

Earlier this month Bill McKibben wrote that “Across the northern hemisphere, the temperature, if only for a few hours, apparently crossed a line: it was more than two degrees Celsius above “normal” for the first time in recorded history.”

Of course this comes on the heels of February breaking temperature records in such a stunning fashion that it resulted in a comment from NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt of simply - “Wow.”  

Seeing as the Paris climate agreement set a goal of limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius above “normal” this would appear to stress the urgency of addressing climate change and ending our dependence on fossil fuels.

That's why many investors in oil companies are now asking the companies to address this reality by stress testing their portfolios against a scenario where the two degree goal is achieved. The only way to achieve this goal is to leave a significant amount of oil company assets “stranded” or “in the ground.”

Audit of Federal Railroad Administration Enforcement Reveals Serious Failures

In January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) released the report “Rigged Justice - How Weak Enforcement Lets Corporate Offenders Off Easy” detailing what is known as regulatory capture.

A key point made in the report is that serious corporate offenses — even those resulting in massive environmental contamination or deaths — almost never result in criminal charges against the individuals involved. The most likely outcome is always a small fine that, when compared to the corporation’s annual profits, is nothing more than a rounding error.

While “Rigged Justice” did not specifically focus on the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), an audit of the FRA’s policies on hazardous material transportation by the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Transportation released in February found many of the same issues.

Echoing the message of Warren’s report, the audit notes that “penalties have little deterrent effect, and criminal penalties are not being pursued.”

The audit notes that within the sample of cases reviewed, 17 cases could have been referred for criminal investigation and yet none were. The audit estimates that over 20% of all violations could be reviewed for criminal investigation.

Federal Railroad Administration Moves Forward on Rail Bridge Safety

Earlier this year the Association of American Railroads (AAR), the industry’s top lobbying group, produced a new report on rail safety. While the report ignored serious safety improvements such as requiring modernized braking systems on trains carrying hazardous materials, it did address one area of concern for oil-by-rail activists — rail bridge safety.

The section of the new AAR report on rail bridges opens with the statement “Don’t judge a book by its cover” — arguing that just because a bridge looks unsafe doesn’t mean it is. The report then goes on to describe industry programs to inspect rail bridges.

Railroads have been leaders in bridge safety practices for decades. In fact, long before the federal government began its highway bridge inspection program, the railroads inspected railroad bridges routinely. These inspections require detailed annual checks of each bridge. Safety inspectors sometimes need to scale bridges — often hundreds of feet in the air — to examine the health of bridge members and components.

So the rail industry claims detailed annual checks of each bridge are standard practice. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case. And even if it is the case, the industry has only allowed the public to “judge a book by its cover” because it wouldn’t share these reports with the public.

Large Methane Leaks Highlight Ongoing Risk to Climate

A new study of the recent methane leak in Aliso Canyon, California confirms that it was the largest methane leak in US history. According to the study, the disaster’s impact on the climate will be equivalent to the effect of annual greenhouse gas emissions from over half a million cars.

Last week at the oil industry gathering CERAweek, Reuters reported Environmental Protection Agency chief Gina McCarthy revealed that, “Methane emissions from existing sources in the oil and gas sector are substantially higher than we previously understood.”

Also last week, the Texas Observer reported that the combined methane leaks of the Barnett Shale gas fields was actually greater than the volume of the Aliso Canyon disaster — contributing 8% of nationwide methane emissions. And while the Aliso Canyon well has been capped, the Barnett shale emissions continue on.

EPA Urged to Reject California Plan to Dump Oil Waste Into Underground Water

Last week the Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking the agency to deny a proposal by California oil officials to turn underground water in the Price Canyon area of San Luis Obispo County into a permanent disposal site for oil wastewater.

The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources submitted the exemption application to federal officials earlier this month. If the EPA approves the plan to exempt the aquifer from Safe Drinking Water Act protections, oil company Freeport-McMoRan could move forward with plans to drill hundreds of new oil wells in the area.

The letter to the EPA argues that the state of California has not taken into account nearby drinking water supplies and allowing waste water injection could contaminate those supplies. 

Major Investors Pressure ExxonMobil to Consider Climate Impacts

For the first time, in my memory, we are actually seeing oil and gas majors talk about climate change as an existential threat. Today for example the minister for oil and gas for Saudi Arabia, Ali Al-Naimi, actually got up on stage in front of this entire group and said that climate change is more of an existential threat to the industry than any down cycle.”

This is what Shannon Cleveland, head of Ceres’ Carbon Asset Risk Initiative, told DeSmog from Houston where she is attending the premier annual oil industry gathering known as CERAweek

“That is just a message  — that even with things as bad as they were in 2015 — no one was talking about here at CERAweek last year,” Cleveland continued. “I think there is actually an opportunity for this industry to start shifting.”

Ceres is a group that, according to its website, works with investors “to weave sustainable strategies and practices into the fabric and decision-making of companies, investors and other key economic players.”

Another sign of the shift was Al-Naimi saying that, “Solar is definitely going to be the answer to energy’s future.” This hasn’t been the typical messaging at past CERAweek events. However, the question that is critical for addressing climate change is — how far in the future?  

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