Justin Mikulka

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Justin Mikulka is a freelance writer, audio and video producer living in Trumansburg, NY.

Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

Obama Administration Releases Weak Proposed Rules On Crude By Rail After Industry Lobbying Blitz

Read time: 5 mins

The Department of Transportation released its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking today for the transportation of crude oil and ethanol by rail. With the release of the proposed new regulations, a public comment period now begins before the rules will be finalized.

The proposed rules offer a wide variety of options for the public to comment on with the weakest proposals essentially being the status quo, as is the case for the rail tank car recommendations.

These proposed regulations have been under review for the past several months at the White House’s Office of Information of Regulatory Affairs where industry lobbyists have been hard at work to weaken and delay the regulations. An initial review of the proposal makes it clear their efforts have paid off and first reactions from advocates for increased safety reflect this.

Matt Krogh, of ForestEthics, the group which recently released a website where people can check if they are within the blast zone for the oil trains, released a statement telling the Obama administration to “go back to the drawing board and put public safety first.”

“Today the Obama administration announced weak new standards for high-hazard flammable trains that give the oil industry a license to threaten the safety of millions of Americans and leave communities and emergency responders holding the bag.

The administration seems to have carefully calculated and managed the inconvenience of these rules to the oil industry, but they’ve severely underestimated the threat of these trains to the American public.”

A review of the proposal reveals many things in the industry’s favor.

Maine Residents Fight American Petroleum Institute Lobbyists Over Ban on Tar Sands Shipments

Read time: 4 mins

Portland, Maine, has become the latest battleground in the fight against tar sands oil, with local residents facing off against energy industry forces in an attempt to ban tar sands oil from the city’s port.

The South Portland Clear Skies Ordinance, would ban tar sands oil from being loaded on to ships at the local port. City council will take a final vote on the measure today.

Three weeks ago, about 200 people attended a presentation on the proposed ordinance, many wearing blue “clear skies” t-shirts to show their support. Only three people spoke against the ordinance at that meeting.

But on July 7, when many of the same 200 people in blue t-shirts showed up at the meeting when the city council was set to vote on the ordinance, they were met with a surprise. The meeting room was packed with people in red shirts that read “American Energy” on the front and “SoPo Jobs” on the back.

Exclusive: E-mails Reveal Feds and Rail Companies Pressured States to Keep Oil-by-Rail Information Secret

Read time: 5 mins

Documents released to DeSmogBlog by the Washington State Military Department reveal that both the Department of Transportation (DOT) and rail companies attempted to pressure states including Washington to keep information about Bakken crude oil trains from the public.

As previously reported on DeSmogBlog, while rail companies have been asserting that information about the frequency and routes of Bakken oil trains was “security sensitive,” the Federal Railroad Administration and the Transportation Security Administration were saying the opposite.

However, that didn’t stop the Department of Transportation from pressuring states like Washington only to release information on a “need to know” basis. A document provided to the states by the department argues against the public’s right to know:

This data is intended for those persons with a need-to-know; that is, first responders at the state and local level, as well other appropriate emergency response planners. DOT expects the SERCs to treat this data as confidential, providing it only to those with a need-to-know, and with the understanding that recipients of the data will continue to treat it as confidential.

The Department of Transportation went on to explain why it thought it was “appropriate” to keep the oil train information from the public.

Leaked Trade Deal Document Shows EU Pressuring U.S. to Lift Crude Oil Export Ban

Read time: 5 mins
Oil tanker

A secret document regarding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations leaked this week shows that oil companies have just as much influence over the governments of the European Union as they do over the government of the U.S. 

In the two-page document, the EU makes several arguments about why the TTIP should require the lifting of the U.S. ban on exporting crude oil, including pushing to add a “strong and comprehensive” chapter that would “combine our support for procompetitive regulation while also lifting bilateral restrictions on gas and crude oil, will show our common resolve to increase security and stability through open markets.”

In a revealing statement to the Washington Post, U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for Europe Peter Chase cut to the chase about what was really happening in these negotiations and who was calling the shots.

“Because U.S. and European companies, including energy companies, have invested heavily on both sides of the Atlantic, U.S. and EU negotiators are essentially representing the same company interests,” Chase said.

When both sides of a negotiation want the same thing, it is easy to see what the outcome will be.

Oil Train Blast Zone Website Lets You See Your Proximity to Bomb Trains

Read time: 4 mins
Baltimore blast zone oil trains

As part of the ongoing oil-by-rail Week of Action, ForestEthics has launched a new Oil Train Blast Zone website that allows people to search their address and determine if they are within the estimated blast zones for the trains carrying highly flammable crude oil, known as “bomb trains.”  

Millions of North Americans live in the blast zone, do you?” asks Todd Paglia, ForestEthics executive director. “Citizens understand the danger, it's time for policy makers to catch up and step up.”

The website shows the current known routes of the oil trains and highlights the areas that fall within the Department of Transportation’s recommended evacuation zones for oil train derailments (0.5 miles) and the potential impact zones if there is an oil train fire (1.0 mile).

blast zone.png

Finding yourself within these blast zone areas is particularly troubling because, as previously reported on DeSmogBlog, it has been well established that no community is prepared to respond to a worst case scenario oil train accident.  

Fox Guarding Henhouse: Oil-By-Rail Standards Led by American Petroleum Institute

Read time: 8 mins

How did it get missed for the last ten years?”

That was the question Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), posed to a panel of industry representatives back in April about how the rail industry had missed the fact that Bakken oil is more explosive than traditional crude oil.

How do we move to an environment where commodities are classified in the right containers from the get go and not just put in until we figure out that there’s a problem,” Hersman asked during the two-day forum on transportation of crude oil and ethanol. “Is there a process for that?”

The first panelist to respond was Robert Fronczak, assistant vice president of environmental and hazardous materials for the Association of American Railroads (AAR). His response was telling.

We’ve know about this long before Lac-Megantic and that is why we initiated the tank car committee activity and passed CPC-1232 in 2011,” Fronczak replied, “To ask why the standards are the way they are, you’d have to ask DOT that.”

So, now as the new oil-by-rail safety regulations have been sent from the Department of Transportation (DOT) to the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, it seems like a good time to review Hersman’s questions.

How did we miss this? Is there a process to properly classify commodities for the right container before they are ever shipped? 

Earthjustice to Defend Right of Dryden, NY, to Ban Fracking Within Town Limits

Read time: 1 min
Don't Frack New York

On June 3rd, lawyers from Earthjustice will argue to New York’s highest court that the town board of Dryden, NY, has the right to ban fracking within its borders.   

Gas company Norse Energy has sued the Town of Dryden to try to negate its town council’s 2011 unanimous vote to ban fracking. Dryden’s decision has withstood challenges at two lower levels of New York’s judicial system, but this decision in the state’s highest court will be the one that sets precedent.

Dryden’s initial efforts to ban fracking were organized by a group of citizens with legal help from Helen Slottje, a lawyer who has since won the prestigious Goldman Prize for her work on this issue. Once the gas industry sued the Town of Dryden, Earthjustice volunteered to take on the case and has represented the town in this legal battle.

Earthjustice has produced a video, narrated by actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, which tells the story of the Dryden residents who organized the petition drive that led to the unanimous town board vote establishing the ban on fracking. 

Interactive Map and Report on Oil-By-Rail, "Booming Bomb Train Industry"

Read time: 5 mins

A new report and website released today by Oil Change International provides a comprehensive overview of the current oil-by-rail industry in North America and it isn’t a pretty picture.

The report and interactive map of the “booming bomb train industry” capture the alarming scope of this very recent development.  As the report points out, 70 times as much oil was moved by rail in 2014 as there was in 2005. That rapid expansion is continuing, placing more North American communities at risk.  

This analysis shows just how out of control the oil industry is in North America today. Regulators are unable to keep up with the industry’s expansion-at-any-cost mentality, and public safety is playing second fiddle to industry profits,” said Lorne Stockman, Research Director of Oil Change International and author of the report.

According to the report, Runaway Train: The Reckless Expansion of Crude By Rail in North America, approximately one million barrels of oil per day are moved on 135 trains of 100 cars or more each day in America.  If all of the currently planned development of oil-by-rail facilities occurs, the full capacity to move oil would be five times that amount.  

This is what the All of the Above Energy Strategy looks like – a runaway train headed straight for North American communities,” Stockman said.

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 9.40.08 AM.png

This massive investment by the oil and rail industries to expand their capacity to move oil by rail is one of the main reasons that improving oil-by-rail safety is unlikely when it comes to the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars.  These cars currently make up approximately 70% of the oil-by-rail tank car fleet and there is currently a two to three year waiting list for companies wanting new tank cars.  

Should CEOs Get Jail Time For Oil-By-Rail Accidents Like Lac Megantic?

Read time: 5 mins
Lac Megantic train explosion

On May 12th, a heavily armed SWAT unit stormed the home of Thomas Harding and threw Harding, his son and a visitor to the ground. Harding was then handcuffed, arrested and taken for interrogation.

Harding was the engineer for the oil train that caused the explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. He had cooperated with authorities and was expecting to be charged. The excessive force used to arrest Harding was criticized for being a “politically motivated stunt” in The National Post.

No one is claiming that Harding intentionally caused the accident — however, he is the one facing charges that could result in life in prison.

Meanwhile, the oil industry has knowingly shipped explosive Bakken crude oil and, in the case of Lac-Megantic, misclassified the oil to make it appear less explosive than it actually was.

Irving Oil has been identified by Canada's Transportation Safety Board as the party ultimately responsible for insuring the proper classification of the oil it had purchased. No one from Irving Oil has been charged with any crime.

Playing With Fire: U.S. Regulators Resort to Weak Voluntary Measures For Oil-By-Rail Safety

Read time: 4 mins
Lac Megantic train explosion via Shutterstock

Last year, Jeffrey Wiese, an official with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) told an industry conference that the regulatory process was “kind of dying.”

According to InsideClimate News, Wiese even mentioned that PHMSA was working on a YouTube channel to “persuade the industry to voluntarily improve its safety operations,” as this was one of the only ways it could attempt to improve safety.

PHMSA is the organization in charge of developing new regulations regarding the transportation of crude oil in rail tank cars. 

This week, the Department of Transportation, along with PHMSA, announced its new safety advisory regarding the rail transport of Bakken crude oil. As another example of how the regulatory process is “kind of dying,” the advisory includes no new regulations regarding rail tank cars but “strongly urges” the oil and rail industry to use safer tank cars. 

The advisory makes it clear that oil companies only have to be as safe as they can be while using the existing tank car “fleets” and that they should avoid using older DOT-111 cars to “the extent possible.”   

The dangerous DOT-111 tank cars currently make up approximately 70 percent of the existing fleet of tank cars used for moving oil by rail.

This advisory is just the latest in a long stream of recent safety measures, both voluntary and regulatory.

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