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John Upton's Posts


Oil refiners don’t care about Keystone XL anymore

Pipeline contruction
So many pipelines are being built and expanded in the U.S. that refiners have stopped caring whether Keystone XL gets the OK.

We've heard from the Canadian oil industry that the Keystone XL pipeline is essential for the expansion of tar-sands operations. But here in America, oil refiners are now saying they don't much care whether the damned thing ever gets built.

The U.S. has its own oil boom going on, thanks to fracking, and a lot of that oil is being transported by railcar. Meanwhile, existing pipelines from Canada to the U.S. are being expanded, a process that doesn't require new federal approvals.

The Wall Street Journal quotes a Valero executive saying that if the industry "just sat around and waited for Washington" to approve Keystone, "we'd never get anything done." More from that article:

U.S. companies that refine oil increasingly doubt that the controversial Keystone XL pipeline expansion will ever be built, and now they don't particularly care. ...

[R]efiners are moving ahead with other plans. Valero Energy Corp. had signed to receive oil from Keystone XL when the project was first announced and spent billions of dollars upgrading some of its U.S. Gulf Coast refineries to turn heavy Canadian crude into gasoline and diesel.

But it says it no longer considers the pipeline critical to its business. The company is now expanding rail terminals at its refineries in Benicia, Calif.; St. James, La.; and Quebec to receive more crude oil shipments, including heavy Canadian crude. Part of the reason is the long wait for Keystone. ...


Will the U.S. and New Zealand cave on plans for the world’s biggest marine reserve?

Russia is almost as far away from the Antarctic as you can get without climbing aboard a spaceship, but it still wants to make sure it can fish the living hell out of Antarctic waters.

Ross Sea
The Ross Sea in the Antarctic.

The U.S. and New Zealand have been pushing plans to create the world's largest marine reserve, 890,000 square miles in the Ross Sea, an Antarctic bay in the Southern Ocean teeming with spawning fish, whales, seals, penguins, and other wildlife.

But that proposal was thwarted by Russia during the last two meetings of the multi-nation Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. (Russia also blocked a separate bid by Australia and Europe to establish a similar but slightly smaller chain of reserves nearby in East Antarctica.) Chile, China, Japan, Korea, and Norway, also members of the commission, share some of Russia’s concerns about the economic impacts of fishing restrictions in the Antarctic.

Now comes word that New Zealand will likely propose a smaller reserve to accommodate the Russians. From Fairfax NZ, which operates newspapers in New Zealand:

Read more: Politics


Fracking fights spread to Europe

Belcombe protest
Fracking protestors in Balcombe, England.

European leaders have been peering across the pond at the American fracking boom with envy, watching as the U.S. gives itself a powerful economic edge by trashing its environment to extract natural gas and oil. Now politicians and business leaders from England, Germany, and Holland to Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria have started to push "us too" energy policies.

But many European citizens are not so frack-happy. Some are taking to the streets in rage.

In England, furor has been centered in the bucolic West Sussex village of Balcombe, population 2,000, where a single drilling rig tapping an exploratory well has attracted an encampment of anti-fracking protestors. Dozens have been arrested, including a member of Parliament representing the Green Party. From The Washington Post:

The worries have not only rattled Balcombe’s many well-heeled residents, who have expressed their concerns with characteristic restraint — over tea, at parish council meetings and with knit-ins — but also brought out a louder army of environmental activists. They recently descended on this bucolic retreat wearing the mask of Guy Fawkes, the Briton who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, shouting slogans and telling horror stories about the United States, where they believe fracking has caused earthquakes, water pollution and the rapid industrialization of areas that were formerly pristine. ...


Why are there pesticides and GMOs in our national wildlife refuges?

Crab Orchard
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - Midwest Region
A bald eagle nesting in Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge in Illinois.

You might think that national wildlife refuges would be places where wildlife could take refuge from the environmental insanity of modern American agriculture.

But you'd be wrong.

Birds, insects, and other wildlife are sharing refuges with genetically engineered crops and being exposed to poisonous pesticides.

A lawsuit [PDF] filed by environmental groups last week argues that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Midwestern division is violating federal law by allowing the use of pesticides and the planting of GMOs at wildlife refuges in four states without conducting thorough site-by-site environmental reviews.

Read more: Food


People save more energy when they know they’re being watched

Light switch
We're watching you.

How do you prevent someone from wasting electricity? The same way you prevent them from picking their nose -- make them think they are being watched.

Carnegie Mellon University researchers wanted to see whether the Hawthorne effect could be used to change energy-use patterns. The Hawthorne effect refers to the way people tend to alter their behavior when they sense they are being observed. The effect can be a pain in the ass for scientists trying to study human behavior, but it can also be a powerful tool for influencing that behavior.

The researchers sent postcards to a group of utility customers notifying them that their electricity usage was being tracked for one month as part of an experiment. The series of postcards offered no incentives or instructions to reduce energy use -- they just let the customers know that they were being, in effect, watched. A control group of utility customers got no postcards.

Sure enough, the Hawthorne effect arose to work its magic. According to results reported Tuesday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, people who received the postcards reduced their electricity consumption by an average of 2.7 percent.


Coal company accidentally turns a creek into concrete

Global mining giant Xstrata sent contractors with truckloads of grout to repair gaping cracks and chasms it created on a hilly ridge in an Australian conservation area while mining for coal.

You're probably wondering to yourself, "How could this possibly go wrong?"

When the contractors got there, they made a blunder that would be hilarious were it not so devastating.

Sugarloaf's concrete creek. Reproduced with permission of The Newcastle Herald © Copyright 2013
Darren Pateman
Sugarloaf's concrete creek. Reproduced with permission of The Newcastle Herald © Copyright 2013

As grout was being poured into a crack at the top of the cliff, it was gushing out of another crack at the bottom. An estimated 200 tons of grout -- enough to fill 12 cement trucks -- flowed into a creek. There it hardened, turning what had been a tranquil waterway in the Sugarloaf State Conservation Area into a 370-yard concrete pathway. From the Newcastle Herald:


We can’t blame everything on climate change: Soot melts glaciers too

Say goodbye to the the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland.
Frank Paul, University of Zurich
The Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland.

The world's glaciers are wasting away at a cracking pace -- but it's not just because the climate is warming.

Soot and other black carbon is settling on ice and snow, absorbing the sun's rays and causing frozen water molecules to melt. It can be hard to tell how much of the melt to attribute to warming and how much to soot.

But researchers have pinpointed a period shortly after the Industrial Revolution when black carbon alone appears to have caused glaciers to melt in the European Alps.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Safety inspectors target oil-hauling trains

oil cars on train
Federal officials are trying to keep railway safety on track amidst a boom in oil hauling.

All that combustible fuel being produced by America's fracking boom has federal transportation safety officials on edge.

Inspectors have started scrutinizing train manifests and tank car placards on trains departing from North Dakota’s Bakken region. The region is producing copious quantities of fracked oil, which is being carried to refineries in railway cars -- many of them in a railcar model that's prone to explode.

Operation Classification, aka the Bakken Blitz, was launched last month, just weeks after one such train carrying Bakken oil derailed and exploded in Quebec, killing 47 people and leveling much of the formerly scenic town of Lac-Mégantic. The U.S. Department of Transportation says it began planning the inspections in March after officials noticed discrepancies between the contents of rail cars and the hazardous warnings they bore. From Reuters:

"We need to make sure that what is in those tankers is what they say it is," Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told reporters.

Highly combustible, light crude from the Bakken region is particularly dangerous, Quarterman said, and inspectors will make sure the fuel is properly labeled and handled with care.


Levitating train breaks speed record in Japan

Japanese maglev train
P.S. Lu
This train goes fast.

It sounds like something from a Japanamated techno-fantasy. But a real-life maglev train in Japan just passed its latest real-life test, levitating using magnets as it surpassed speeds of 310 miles per hour -- faster than any other train in the world.

Journalists aboard last week's 27-mile test run could see on overhead screens how fast the train was traveling, but they said they could barely feel a thing. From

The train does have wheels -- it rides on them when the train is at low speed -- then rises up above the track when it reaches approximately 93 mph. On the test run, the train reached its peak speed just three miles into the trip, which would suggest riders would feel pushed back into their seats, but those on board reported no such sensation. ...


Crop-munching pests are traveling north as the climate changes

Gypsy moth caterpillar
Sergey Yeliseev
Gypsy moth larva, a pest in America's forests, is even more pesky these days.

Pests are packing their metaphorical bags and heading for fresh starts nearer the North Pole as the climate warms around them.

Beetles, moths, fungi, and other pests that afflict forests and crops in the Northern Hemisphere are expanding their ranges northward by an average of 24 feet every day.

That's according to British scientists who studied the records of infestations of 470 pests around the world since 1960 and measured the rate at which their ranges appeared to be shifting. They say their findings reveal a potential threat to food security posed by global warming.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food