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Exploding trains

Why we can’t seem to stop oil-filled rail cars from going boom

Don't like pipelines? Get ready for rail.

People -- including me -- have written a good amount already about how trains have been exploding lately. In 2008, 9,500 carloads of crude oil were shipped by train in the U.S.; in 2012, that number was 234,000 carloads. The oil is packed into freight cars that date back to the 1960s and that normally carry payloads like corn syrup, then shipped along aging freight infrastructure. When the trains fail, they fail hard, and because freight lines were built to run through cities, rather than around them, they fail around people. Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the Alabama wetlands, and eastern North Dakota are just …

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Grocery cartel

Mexican gangs learn that lime pays (also crime)

limes_and_gun_2
Shutterstock

“I could just kill for a margarita right now,” you sigh, apparently ignorant of the fact that it is March, and the consumption of an iced beverage is nothing short of an act of insanity. It’s also probably the middle of the workday, so that in itself should be cause for concern in most circles.

You’re also probably unaware that someone may have actually killed -- as in, committed murder -- for the limes that go in your hypothetical margarita. Cartels are invading the Mexican citrus trade, hijacking trucks, and forcibly taking over farms to sell the now-valuable fruit. Another day, another ring of organized criminals making the transition from eight balls to tasty treats!

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Congress successfully took the wind out of wind energy’s sails last year

wind energy
Shutterstock

America's fossil fuel-smitten Congress helped China blow the U.S. out of the water last year when it came to installing new wind energy farms.

A little more than 16 gigawatts of new wind capacity came online in China in 2013 -- nearly half of the 36 gigawatts installed around the world. Compare that with a little more than 1 gigawatt that was installed in the U.S. -- down alarmingly from 13 gigawatts the year before.

That means American wind installations plummeted in a single year despite the falling price of wind energy, which is becoming lower than the price of electricity produced by burning natural gas in some parts of the country.

Dude, where's our wind? Well, the latest figures were calculated by Navigant Research, and it blamed a "politically divided Congress" in a new paywalled report for the faltering wind growth in the U.S.

Congress allowed wind energy tax credits to blow away at the end of 2013 -- so why would 2013's installation figures be so bleak? According to the report, it was all about uncertainty. Lawmakers "failed to extend tax incentives in time to positively impact the 2013 development and construction cycle."

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Ohio lawmakers: All right, folks, we guess it’s OK for you to buy Teslas

Tesla sales center
Tesla

If you live in Ohio, your lawmakers are poised to allow you to purchase a Tesla from a sales center -- without forcing you to drive outside the borders of the Buckeye State to do your eco-friendly spending.

But legislative efforts to placate the Ohio Automobile Dealers Association will nonetheless cap the number of sales offices Tesla is allowed to operate inside the state at three -- and other auto manufacturers will be barred outright from hawking their wheel-spinning wares direct to buyers. Here's the news, courtesy of NJTV:

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Farmers and eaters: Why can’t we be friends?

cowboy-checkers.jpg
Shutterstock

A farmer from Iowa recently told me a story about visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live. He chatted up foodsellers at the Ferry Building farmers market, visited the wine country, and met a lot of nice people. But he also noticed that whenever he told anyone that he was a corn and soybean farmer, the temperature in the room seemed to drop. Oh, that kind of farmer. In the Bay Area, saying "I grow corn and soy" is the real world version of saying Voldemort.

This antipathy runs both ways, of course. Visiting Iowa, I felt a similar chill at times when I revealed that I was a California food writer. Another farmer asked me how I thought we should deal with the problem of people demanding organic foods.

But I truly believe that we’re natural allies. The farmer and the eater should be friends! We all want the same thing: A sustainable system, one that provides fair compensation for food producers and makes the world a more healthy, delicious, and beautiful place with every bite. We should be breaking the path toward this goal together. And yet, instead of mutual respect, there’s acrimony, suspicion, and anger.

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Track star

Is this train the “little engine that could” for clean energy storage?

railcar_renewables_storage
ARES

In Greek mythology, the story of Sisyphus endlessly rolling a boulder uphill is meant to be a cautionary tale. Gravity, in this case, worked against the poor chump. But the smart folks at Advanced Rail Energy Storage North America (ARES) asked: Why not make gravity your friend? ARES has pioneered a train full of rocks that climbs up a hill, only to roll back down again and repeat the process, Sisyphus style. But instead of a metaphor of futility, this new train technology offers a breakthrough opportunity in clean energy storage. It isn't easy to find feasible solutions for storing grid-scale renewable energy loads for when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't …

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BP’s newly upgraded refinery just spilled oil into Chicago’s water source

BP Whiting oil spill
Parker Wood / Coast Guard
Cleaning up after BP. Again.

Deepwater Horizawhatnow?

Less than a year after BP upgraded its Whiting refinery in northwestern Indiana to allow it to handle heavy Canadian tar-sands oil, causing petroleum coke to begin piling up in nearby Chicago, an industrial accident at the refinery has spewed some of that oil into Lake Michigan. The Chicago Tribune reports that it's not known how long the refinery was leaking or how much oil was spilled. The leak was reported at 4:30 p.m. and plugged by 9 p.m., when an EPA official arrived at the scene. More from the Tribune:

Mike Beslow, the EPA’s emergency response coordinator, said there appeared to be no negative effects on Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for 7 million people in Chicago and the suburbs. The 68th Street water intake crib is about eight miles northwest of the spill site, but there were no signs of oil drifting in that direction.

Initial reports suggest that strong winds pushed most of the oil toward a sandy cove on BP’s property between the refinery and an Arcelor Mittal steel mill. A flyover Tuesday afternoon revealed no visible oil beyond booms laid on the water to prevent the oil from spreading, Beslow said.

The spill came at an ominous time, catching the attention of both of Illinois's U.S. senators. "[T]hree weeks ago, BP announced a plan to nearly double its processing of heavy crude oil at its BP Whiting Refinery," Mark Kirk (R) and Dick Durbin (R) said in a joint statement on Tuesday.

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Can I get a Dasani, bro? Not in this national park, you can’t!

bear_dasanibottle
Bear photo: Eric Gorski

“Man,” said one bear to the other, prying open his Dasani water bottle with one claw. “It’s gonna be such a bummer once they ban these babies.”

“I feel you, dude,” his ursine friend responded, gnawing at a bottlecap. “I cannot get ENOUGH of these things!”

This exchange is clearly fictional. Contrary to popular commercial imagery, bears don’t drink out of bottles. Even if they did -- which they don’t, seriously -- those taking up residence in national parks across the United States are going to start finding it a lot more difficult to get their paws on some Aquafina. More than 20 national parks across the country  have now banned the sale of plastic water bottles, with more parks expected to enact bans of their own this year.

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Wait, why are we dunking so many of our seeds in neonic poison?

mustard seed
Shutterstock

In the same way that America's fast-food industry fooled us into accepting that a burger must come with a pile of fries and a colossal Coke, the agricultural industry has convinced farmers that seeds must come coated with a side of pesticides.

And research suggests that, just like supersized meals, neonicotinoid seed treatments are a form of dangerous overkill -- harming bees and other wildlife but providing limited agricultural benefits. The routine use of seed treatments is especially useless in fields where pest numbers are low, or where insects, such as soybean aphids, chomp down on the crops after the plant has grown and lost much of its insecticidal potency.

“The environmental and economic costs of pesticide seed treatments are well-known," said Peter Jenkins, one of the authors of a new report that summarizes the findings of 19 peer-reviewed studies dealing with neonic treatments and major crop yields. "What we learned in our thorough analysis of the peer-reviewed science is that their claimed crop yield benefit is largely illusory, making their costs all the more tragic."

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This new contract means the U.S. is finally really getting high-speed rail

siemens-high-speed-train-flickr
Darkroom Daze

Siemens and Cummins, a German engineering conglomerate and American engine manufacturer, want to help you shoot across America on high-speed rail. Beating out U.S. bids from Caterpillar and GE, Siemens won a $226 million contract to deliver 32 diesel-electric trains as soon as autumn 2016.

The trains will be used on routes Amtrak is planning in California, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington. (Illinois in particular is working on its Chicago­–St. Louis line, with max speeds of 110 mph, according to the AP.) If all goes well, Siemens could build another 225 trains for the U.S.

Siemens bragged about its green cred in a press release: