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.

Two Ethanol Trains Derail — and One Explodes — as Industry Embraces Riskier Practices

An ethanol unit train of DOT-111 tank cars.

On March 8, a train pulling 80 tank cars of ethanol derailed in Providence, Rhode Island. Luckily, no ethanol was spilled and no one was injured. However, activists immediately began calling for a halt to these “unit trains” of ethanol into and out of the city, noting the potential risks to the community. Unit trains are longer than average freight trains — often 100 cars or more — dedicated to carrying a single commodity, such as ethanol or crude oil. 

These risks were on display two days later when a unit train hauling 100 cars of ethanol derailed on a bridge in Graettinger, Iowa, approximately 160 miles from Des Moines. This time, 27 of the cars left the tracks. At least eight tank cars ruptured and caught fire, and three tank cars ended up in a creek beneath the bridge, releasing about 1,600 gallons of ethanol into the waterway. 

Claims Used to Overturn the Crude Oil Export Ban Are Turning Out False

Oil tanker near the Golden Gate Bridge.

Last week, oil companies in the United States exported approximately 1.2 million barrels of crude oil per day, setting a new record for exports since the ban on exporting crude oil was lifted in 2016. To put that in perspective, that is slightly more oil than the U.S. currently imports from Saudi Arabia. 

This level of exports has “surprised” energy analysts, according to a report from CNBC. During the several-year campaign to end the crude oil export ban, the oil industry and its lobbyists peddled many arguments to justify the overturn, but a year after crude oil started leaving the U.S. for global markets, most of these predictions have quickly been proven wrong.

Leader of Standing Rock Sioux: “This Movement Has Been Special”

Dave Archambault II

It’s time to do something and no longer sit back.” That was the message that David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, delivered to an audience at Cornell University on February 16. His comments came just a week before the February 22 deadline set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and echoed by North Dakota governor Doug Burgum for those at the Standing Rock encampments to evacuate.

While the overflow crowd was certainly drawn there because of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access pipeline, the title of Archambault’s seminar was “Standing Rock: The Violation of Indigenous Peoples’ Rights.” While he did discuss the months-long protests, the talk covered a wide range of topics, adding essential historical context to the tribe's modern struggle against the pipeline. 

Why Is the Exxon-Funded Heartland Institute Now Calling Oil Trains “Dangerously Flammable”?

Derailed oil train cars still smoking after the fire in Mount Carbon, West Virginia

When President Donald Trump signed executive orders pushing for the approval and expedited review of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, an oil industry-funded think tank put out an interesting comment supporting the move in a press release:

I believe that Canada is the largest supplier of foreign oil to the United States,” said Christopher Essex at the University of Western Ontario, on behalf of the climate change–denying Heartland Institute. “It gets there in part via huge dirty dangerously flammable trains of oil-bearing tank cars.”  

But why was Heartland, which has received large amounts of funding from ExxonMobil, championing oil pipelines while highlighting the risks of oil trains? 

Rail Industry Eager for a New Trump Era Light on Safety Rules

Elaine Chao

The policy landscape in Washington, D.C., dramatically shifted on Election Day…” 

While clearly not news to anyone, it was part of Edward Hamberger’s address to a conference in New York a week after Trump’s presidential victory. Hamberger is CEO of the rail industry lobbying group, the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The rail industry — along with many others — has seized upon the Trump victory as an opportunity to push a “free market” approach to avoid future regulations — and roll back existing ones. 

Will New LNG-by-Rail Industry Repeat the Mistakes of Oil Trains?

Over and over again, attendees of the 2016 Energy by Rail Conference heard that “LNG by rail is ready to go!”

LNG, or liquefied natural gas, is methane that has been cooled to the point of being a liquid. So, how do we know that shipping this hazardous flammable material on America's aging rail infrastructure is “ready to go”?

What Have We Learned From the Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster?

Lac-Megantic's downtown before the oil train disaster.

Brian Stevens first learned about the Lac-Megantic disaster — in which an unattended oil train caught fire and exploded, killing 47 people in the Quebec town — when he saw the news reports on TV.

Stevens is currently National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, but he previously spent 16 years as an air-brake mechanic working on trains. At a recent conference in Ottawa examining lessons from the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster, he recounted his reaction to seeing those initial scenes of destruction.  

That ain’t Canada, that can’t happen in North America because our brake systems won’t allow that,” he said when he eventually learned the images he was seeing were from Canada. “My heart sank … It was crushing.”  

Oil-By-Rail Regulators Consider Crude Oil Volatility Limits That Would Require Oil Stabilization

In July 2015, a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Culbertson, Montana resulting in an oil spill of 35,000 gallons — more than the contents of a full rail tank car.

But unlike all of the other Bakken train accidents where large amounts of oil were spilled something odd happened. There was no explosion or fire. 

So what was different about the accident in Culbertson, Montana?

Insights Into the Thinking of Trump Advisor Myron Ebell’s Competitive Enterprise Institute on Climate Change

The 20th Annual National Conference on Private Property Rights was held on October 22nd in Albany, NY. Although this was an association supposedly concerned about property rights, two speakers from the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) spoke about climate change science. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is where Myron Ebell — the man Donald Trump has since appointed to oversee the dismantling of the EPA during the transition, has been employed for years as the Director of Energy and Environment. 

Between the content of the talks of the two Ivy League educated speakers, Sam Kazman and Marlo Lewis, Jr., it isn’t hard to figure out how Myron Ebell will approach the issue of climate science as part of the Trump administration. Here were some of the highlights. 

Hey California, Why Are You Allowing the Use of Oil Wastewater To Irrigate Our Food?

There are times when science is obvious. This is one of those times.

A new report by researchers at PSE Healthy Energy, UC Berkeley, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the University of the Pacific sheds light on a very troubling practice in the field of Big Ag — the use of oil industry wastewater for irrigating food crops. 

Would you water your garden with the wastewater from an oil field? No. So why does California allow this practice in industrial agriculture? 

This disturbing scientific report identifies dozens of hazardous chemicals used in oilfields supplying waste fluid to water California food crops and recharge drinking water aquifers. People in the Central Valley could be drinking these oil industry chemicals right now, and current water-testing procedures wouldn’t detect these dangerous substances. Given these shocking findings, California regulators should immediately halt the use of oil-waste fluid in any procedure that could contaminate the water we drink or the food we eat,” said John Fleming, a staff scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

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