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.

There Will Be Blood - Oil Train Regulations Fail To Address Known Risks

Railroad rules have been written in blood.” This line was included in the annual report of the Commissioner of Railroads for the state of Michigan — in 1901. The idea was that safety rules were only implemented when enough blood had been spilled.

One hundred and fifteen years later, in an opinion piece on rail safety for CNN, rail expert Fred Failey essentially said the same thing, opening his piece with the statement, “The rules by which trains operate on American railroads were written in blood.”

When it comes to the rules regarding oil trains in America, many regulations that would improve safety have yet to be written. One reason is that, despite the multiple oil train crashes resulting in massive explosions in the past several years, there have been no fatalities in America.

Delta 5 Trial Set To Make History With “Necessity Defense” for Climate Action

In September 2014, five individuals — now known as the Delta 5 — blockaded a train transporting Bakken shale oil at the Delta rail yard in Everett, Washington. This action was taken to oppose the known risks of the explosive Bakken oil and the risks that fossil fuels pose to the climate.

Delta 5 member Abby Brockway explained what led her to take this action.

I met a lot of politicians along the way but each individual said ‘I hear what you are saying but there is nothing that I can do. I feel powerless as your representative,’” Brockway recounted. “I can’t accept that.”

After stopping the train for eight hours, the five protesters were removed and arrested and charged with Criminal Trespass and Blocking or Delaying a Train. The Delta 5 plan to use the “necessity defense” to defend their actions.

Porter Ranch Methane Leak: Business As Usual Leads to State of Emergency

The ongoing Aliso Canyon methane leak in California — which finally earned a declaration of a state of emergency by Governor Jerry Brown — is a repeat of a story we have seen many times before.

A history of lax oversight by state regulators. Loopholes in weak regulations allowing for corporate cost cutting despite known risks. The revolving door between the oil and gas industry and regulatory agencies that oversee the industry. And politicians who fill their campaign coffers with industry donations.

The real emergency is that until this system changes, the Porter Ranch methane leak disaster in California will just be one more in a series of such events which could have been prevented with basic common sense and safety measures. 

Watch this video for more information:

Top Three Myths Used to Sell the Lifting of the Crude Oil Export Ban, A Climate and Security Disaster In The Making

It can be difficult to win an argument when you have no viable position. However, when you are the oil industry, you can just buy the win. Which is what the oil industry is poised to do regarding the lifting of the crude oil export ban.

The GOP is currently holding up Congressional action needed to avoid a government shutdown by demanding inclusion of the lifting of the crude oil export ban in the government spending package.

Here are some of the disingenuous arguments the oil industry has paid to have members of Congress make over the past two years.

Democrats Ignoring Climate Implications of Lifting Oil Export Ban - “We Can Have Our Cake and Eat It Too”

Jason Bordoff wants to lift the oil export ban and has been actively working on this for the past two years. Which is odd if you believe that President Obama is against lifting the ban as the White House claims. Prior to Bordoff’s work to lift the oil export ban at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP), he was special assistant to President Obama and senior director for energy and climate change.

So why is Obama’s former senior director on climate change pushing a policy that will greatly increase fracking in America as well as global oil consumption for decades? The carbon and methane pollution consequences of this for climate change are plainly obvious.

Perhaps Bordoff had a change of heart since leaving the administration? If so he has plenty of company. For the past two years, many former Obama administration officials have joined Republicans in calling for a lifting of the export ban.

New York Attorney General Petitions Government for Oil-by-Rail Volatility Standard

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s recent petition to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to require oil producers to stabilize oil before it is shipped by rail is a detailed 30-page document. However, the essence of the document is summed up in a single sentence (found on page 24).

Without rulemaking on vapor pressure, current Federal standards will not prevent high intensity fires and explosions in future train accidents.”

Vapor pressure is a characteristic of oil used to quantify oil’s volatility and is correlated to the amount of natural gas liquids present in the crude oil mixture. The more natural gas liquids, the higher the vapor pressure.

The high percentage of natural gas liquids (e.g. propane and butane) in the Bakken oil are what make it so volatile and flammable.

As repeatedly noted by DeSmog, with the new regulations failing to address the volatility of the oil, the risk of “bomb train” accidents remains.

The Flipside of Accuracy: NPR Report on Oil and Ethanol Train Derailments Full of Industry Talking Points

Derailment by Sarah Zarling

On November 7th, a train carrying ethanol in DOT-111 tank cars derailed in Wisconsin, resulting in rail cars rupturing and a spill of 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River.

The next day, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in a residential area in Watertown, Wisconsin, resulting in a spill of around 1,000 gallons of oil.

These two spills provide another stark reminder of the dangers of moving oil and ethanol along waterways and through residential areas.

It also apparently provided an opportunity for National Public Radio (NPR) to push multiple oil and rail industry talking points. And the article on NPR's website notes NPR is sponsored by America's Natural Gas (ANGA). 

“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.”

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