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.

Rail Industry Still Fighting Safety Fixes That Would Have Saved Hundreds of Lives

Read time: 8 mins
Fatal Philadelphia Amtrak crash in 2015

The latest fatal Amtrak accident in Washington state was another reminder of the reality of the cost-benefit approach to regulating safety.

When the rail industry and its lobbyists are able to argue against implementing proven safety technology because they don’t want to pay for it — that is, for the sake of higher profits — preventable accidents will continue to happen. 

Will Canada’s Latest Boom in Tar Sands Oil Mean Another Boom for Oil-by-Rail?

Read time: 6 mins
Oil by rail accident, with tank cars burning, near Gogama, Canada in 2015

Nothing seems able to derail the rise in Canadian tar sands oil production. Low prices, canceled pipelines, climate realities, a major oil company announcing it will no longer develop heavy oils, divestment, and now even refusals to insure tar sands pipelines have all certainly slowed production, but it is still poised for significant growth over the next several years.

In March an analyst for GMP FirstEnergy commented, “It's hard to imagine a scenario where oilsands production would go down.”

But with pipelines to U.S. refineries and ports running at or near capacity from Canada, it's hard to imagine all that heavy Canadian oil going anywhere without the help of the rail industry.

Judge Sides with Big Oil in Maine Pipeline Case

Read time: 7 mins
Crude oil sign in marsh next to Maine's Sebago Lake

In a case that has national ramifications, a federal judge has ruled against the city of South Portland, Maine, in its latest effort to stop the coastal town from becoming a destination for Canadian tar sands oil.  The case centers around an existing pipeline owned by oil companies ExxonMobil, Shell, and Suncor.

The Trump Admin’s Misleading Justifications for Repealing This Oil Train Safety Rule

Read time: 11 mins
Scrabble board spelling 'deception,' 'donor,'profit,' and 'fail'

On December 4, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it would repeal a critical safety regulation for modern braking systems on the same oil trains which have derailed, spilled oil, caught fire, exploded, and even killed dozens in multiple high profile accidents in recent years. 

The regulation, released by the DOT's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in mid 2015, required that oil trains have modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) braking systems by 2021. However, in the latest iteration of its review process for this rule, the DOT is now doing an about-face.

Washington Agency Votes to Reject Vancouver Energy’s Massive Oil-by-Rail Terminal

Read time: 5 mins
Portland, Oregon, bridge with banner reading 'Coal oil gas none shall pass'

In another major blow to the West Coast oil-by-rail industry, a Washington state agency voted unanimously to recommend Governor Jay Inslee reject the Vancouver Energy oil terminal. Proposed for construction in Vancouver, Washington, along the Columbia River, it would be the largest oil-by-rail facility in the country.

Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) has been reviewing the project since 2013 — reportedly the longest review period ever for the council. However, its November 28 meeting and vote on the final recommendation for the Tesoro Savage–backed project only took 10 minutes.

Proposed Bailout of Coal and Nuclear Is Trump Admin’s Attempt to Save Dying Industries

Read time: 5 mins
A Caterpillar D9 bulldozer pushes a mountain of coal at a rail/barge terminal on the Tennessee River. Calvert City, September 2010.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry recently ordered the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to fast-track a rule that purports to make the energy grid more resilient but which in reality will force utility customers to buy more expensive electricity from coal and nuclear plants. A new report by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) casts this proposal as a thinly veiled bailout for two industries that are no longer competitive in the electricity generation markets.

According to federal data compiled by EWG, without this bailout, utilities plan to close 75 coal and nuclear plants in the next three years.

National Academy Study Touts Oil-by-Rail Safety But Supports Weakening Regulations

Read time: 8 mins
national academy of sciences sign in Washington, D.C.

A new study by the National Academy of Sciences concludes that the rail industry should do more to improve the safety of transporting oil and ethanol by rail, which includes addressing track safety and rail tank cars. Both of these are well-known safety issues.

However, the study, “Safely Transporting Hazardous Liquids and Gases in a Changing U.S. Energy Landscape,” also cites a separate NAS study “A Review of the Department of Transportation Plan for Analyzing and Testing Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes” and notes that after reviewing available data, the researchers were unable to “make a conclusive statement” on the safety technology known as electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.* This is where things get interesting.

American Petroleum Institute Failed to Respond to Concerns of Oil Train Safety

Read time: 4 mins
American Petroleum Institute CEO Jack Gerard

On July 29, 2013 Thomas J. Herrmann of the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) wrote a letter to Jack Gerard, president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute (API). The letter was in response to the oil train disaster that occurred earlier that month in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and reduced the downtown to a vacant lot (and it remains so over four years later).

Herrmann was writing to Gerard because the oil tank cars hauled by trains are actually owned or leased by members of the American Petroleum Institute, not by rail companies.

Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Was Avoidable Corporate Crime

Read time: 4 mins
Lac-Mégantic before oil train explosion leveled its downtown

Damning new testimony from an engineer of the locomotive involved in the deadly 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, reveals several ways corporate cost-cutting directly led to the accident, which claimed 47 lives.

Experts Who Sold the Idea of Oil Exports Proven Very Wrong Very Fast

Read time: 6 mins
Tanker

As Bloomberg put it recently, today “crude oil gushes out of the U.S. like never before.” U.S. exports of crude oil just hit a new record: nearly two million barrels per day. And while at DeSmog we predicted that “lifting the oil export ban will result in large increases in fracking for oil in the U.S.,” most industry experts at the time were making very different claims.

It’s universally agreed in the short term that we won’t see a flood of ships leaving for foreign ports because the economics aren’t right,” Sandy Fielden, director of energy analytics at respected consulting firm RBN Energy, said in December 2015, just before the ban on crude oil export lifted. Fielden was explaining why lifting that ban wouldn't result in a sizable and ongoing rush to export American crude.

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