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.

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.

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.

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