North Dakota's oil-drilling boom spawned yet another fiery train wreck this week.
A 106-car crude-hauling train derailed and exploded on Monday, the latest unfortunate consequence of the mad scramble to get fracked oil to refineries by rail.
Nobody was hurt during the explosion and fire, which burned for more than a day, but most residents of a nearby town in eastern North Dakota heeded evacuation calls as toxic smoke billowed over their homes.
"This is too close for comfort," Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell told the AP. "There have been numerous derailments in this area. It's almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we're going to have an accident, it's when." Here's more from AP:
A team of Antarctic researchers was rescued after spending nine days "stuck," as one of the scientists put it, "in our own experiment."
Members of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition were among 52 passengers aboard the MV Akademik Shokalskiy when it became trapped in sea ice on Dec. 24. Rescue efforts were thwarted for more than a week by bad weather, but on Thursday the scientists and tourists were finally airlifted by a Chinese helicopter to the safety of an Australian icebreaker:
The environmental news this year was full of ups and downs, twists and turns, and deeply conflicted protagonists.
1. Obama shows he cares about the climate
President Barack Obama unveiled an actual, coherent climate plan in June, full of steps he can take without cooperation from Congress. The centerpiece is regulations cracking down on coal-burning power plants in the U.S. The plan also entails ending U.S. support for most coal plants abroad. And it calls for boosting renewables and energy efficiency, cutting fossil fuel subsidies, preparing for climate change that's already inevitable, and lots of other good stuff. To the surprise of almost everyone, Obama also said he wouldn't approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it were determined that it would “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." Of course, there's lots of debate over that question. (And the Obama news wasn't all rosy; see No. 6 below.)
2. Activists ramp up fight against oil pipelines, fracking, and coal exports
Sea-level rise isn't just bad news for coastal-dwelling humans. It's also bad news for coastal-dwelling critters and plants, including one out of every six threatened and endangered species in the U.S.
That's according to a Center for Biological Diversity analysis of federal data. From the new report:
Left unchecked, rising seas driven by climate change threaten 233 federally protected species in 23 coastal states. ...
The most vulnerable groups are flowering plants, which represent a third of all at-risk species, followed by anadromous fishes, birds, mammals, reptiles and freshwater mussels.
These species will be harmed as their habitat areas are submerged and eroded by rising seas. Saltwater intrusion also contaminates groundwater and causes the die-off and conversion of plant communities. ...
Faced with rising seas, coastal wildlife and their habitats will need to move inland to survive. However, because 39 percent of the U.S. population lives in coastal counties, much coastal habitat has already been lost to development, leaving species with few places to move. Without help, many species are at risk of being squeezed between rising seas and shoreline development.
Here's a list of five animal species most at risk from rising seas:
Five years ago, in the dead of night, a torrent of more than a million gallons of slurry broke free from its holding place at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant in Tennessee. The toxic stew of coal fly ash, which is produced when coal is burned, polluted waterways and 300 acres of land. The disaster triggered anger from residents and promises from the EPA to introduce new rules to prevent such accidents.
As if we didn't already have enough filthy, inefficient, unconventional oil-extraction techniques in use in North America, here's one more: oil shale mining.
A Utah company has received the go-ahead from the state’s water-quality department to begin operating the first commercial oil shale mine in North America.
Oil shale is not to be confused with shale oil, or shale gas, or oil sands. So what the hell is it? "Contrary to its name," explains Western Resource Advocates, "oil shale contains no petroleum but is instead a dense rock that has a waxy substance called kerogen tightly bound within it. When kerogen is heated to high temperatures, it liquefies, producing compounds that can eventually be refined into synthetic petroleum products."
Companies have mulled oil shale mining in the Mountain States for more than a century, but previous efforts have foundered as energy prices have been too low to justify the large expense associated with the complicated extraction process. Now Red Leaf Resources is ready to give oil shale another crack.Here's more from The Salt Lake Tribune:
For the past four years, European Union officials have been mulling a labeling system that would require fuel companies to tell their customers how much carbon pollution is produced by each of the products they sell.
The idea is deeply unpopular with oil companies, which don't want their customers thinking about such things every time they fill up their tanks. It's also deeply unpopular with Canada. That's because the country's tar-sands oil is particularly dreadful for the climate, something the government would rather not have advertised. The oil companies and Canadian government have called the labeling idea unscientific.
But the idea is popular with an independent group of experts -- experts who are better qualified to determine whether or not something is "scientific." Those would be scientists.
Reuters reports that 53 scientists from such universities as Harvard, Stanford, and Columbia, as well as from European institutions, sent a letter urging the president of the European Commission "to press ahead with a plan to label tar sands as more polluting than other forms of oil, in defiance of intensive lobbying" from the Canadian government:
Props are in order for Chesapeake Energy Corp., one of the country's biggest natural gas producers, for finding yet another way to make a big mess with fracking. This time, it was irresponsible construction practices.
Genetically modified strains of corn not authorized for sale in China have been showing up in cargoes exported from the U.S., prompting China to reject them.
And we're not talking about trifling amounts here. In November and December, the country rejected more than 500,000 tons of American corn that had been genetically modified by Syngenta to repel caterpillar pests.