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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Oil and gas train runs off tracks, explodes in Canada — again

Another train loaded with fossil fuels derailed in Canada over the weekend, triggering explosions and fueling a big fire.

A train derailment in Gainford, Alberta is seen in this aerial photo courtesy of the RCMP and Parkland County, October 19, 2013.

Firefighters did not bother battling the flames at the accident near Edmonton in Alberta. Instead, they allowed the propane that was leaking from ruptured rail cars to burn itself out. Nobody was hurt, but a nearby town was evacuated. From a weekend Globe and Mail report:

The train belongs to Canadian National Railway Co. It derailed in Gainford, a village about 90 kilometres west of Alberta’s capital, at around 1 a.m. MT Saturday. The train was en route to Vancouver from Edmonton.

Thirteen tanker cars went off the track, according to Louis-Antoine Paquin, a spokesman for CN. Nine of those are pressurized tank cars filled with liquefied petroleum gas in the form of propane, and three of them are on fire.


U.N. lists air pollution as carcinogen

Air pollution

If you want to avoid lung cancer, the United Nation's cancer-research body has some advice for you: Don't breathe.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer on Thursday added air pollution, and the particulate matter that it contains, to its list of carcinogens.

The airborne poisons were classified as "Group 1" carcinogens, meaning there is "sufficient evidence" that they cause cancer in humans. They are mostly produced through the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles, power plants, and stoves.

And it's not just lung cancer that can be triggered by air pollution. In a statement [PDF], the agency noted "a positive association" between polluted air and bladder cancer.

Read more: Climate & Energy


America to EPA: We missed you, babe


During the 16-day federal government shutdown, clueless GOP staffers posted a top 10 list of "Reasons The Government Shutdown Isn't All Bad" on a Senate website. The list mostly celebrated the fact that the EPA's work was crippled by the budget spat.

"Fewer bureaucrats at the EPA makes it less likely that they'll make up science on new regulations," was among the witticisms listed on the blog post. The post then rattled off fantastical agency scandals that sounded cribbed from a fossil fuel industry dream journal.

But polling commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council over the Columbus Day weekend revealed that EPA bashing is unlikely to win much public sympathy for the Republicans. The vast majority of people polled were bummed out that fighting in Washington had prevented the EPA from doing its job.


Welcome back, federal workers! Look how we screwed up your research

Here's hoping that federal researchers enjoy catching up on weeks of missed work.

Hooray! Congress has given the federal government permission to begin functioning again. National parks and monuments are reopening and the National Zoo's panda cam is back. But after a 16-day hiatus, which by one estimate cost the country up to $24 billion, there have been painful impacts on scientific research -- including research that could help tell us WTF is going on with the climate.

The most-discussed climate-science impacts from the shutdown have been those affecting studies in Antarctica, where a narrow annual research window is approaching. From Politico:

In Antarctica, scientists who study the Adelie penguin worry that they won’t be in place when the fast-declining species arrives later this year at its nesting and breeding grounds. “If we have breaks in that record, there are a lot of scientific statistical analysis of our observations that we can’t do. And so in our case, these data, the observations are all just gone forever. We never get them back,” said Hugh Ducklow, an oceanographer and professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.


Colorado frackers pump out cash to ward off ballot initiatives

Broomfield, Colo.
Broomfield, Colo.

Flush with cash, the fracking industry is liberally throwing bills around as it battles anti-fracking groups pushing suspensions and outright bans on the practice in four Colorado cities.

Anti-fracking ballot measures have been put forth by residents of Fort Collins, Boulder, Lafayette, and Broomfield. (Similar initiatives are planned in Greeley and Loveland -- and some activists are pushing for a statewide initiative.)

Opponents of fracking have raised about $16,000 in total as they fight for votes in those four cities, The Denver Post reports. That's not bad for a grassroots effort, but it pales in comparison with fundraising by the pro-fracking sector, which is separately fighting a fracking ban in Longmont in court:

Groups opposing four anti-fracking measures have campaign contributions of $606,205 -- 99.7 percent of which came from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, reports filed Tuesday show. ...

Read more: Climate & Energy


GMO corn crop trials suspended in Mexico

A Mexican cornfield.
Sin maíz transgénico permitido.

Mexico, birthplace of modern maize, will remain (virtually) free of genetically modified varieties for now.

A moratorium on the growing of GMO corn has been in place in Mexico since 1988, but the government has recently made moves to allow the practice. That raised the ire of activists, farmers, and human rights groups -- dozens of whom filed a lawsuit seeking to block field trials by Monsanto and other international companies.

Last week, a Mexican federal judge issued an order that suspends field trials from moving forward, citing risks of imminent environmental harm.

Read more: Food


Australian scientists rescue wildlife by hand from changing climates

Mountain pygmy possum
Australian Alps collection - Parks Australia
Australian scientists may lend a hand to mountain pygmy possums, which are threatened by climate change.

Australia is among the countries that are being hit the hardest by global warming -- and that's taking a toll on wildlife. So Australian scientists are preparing to evacuate animals from their natural habitats in an effort to stave off extinctions.

Under a new decision-making framework developed by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, species such as the endangered mountain pygmy possum could be trapped and released into more hospitable environments to help assure their survival.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Greens sue EPA over Pacific Northwest’s increasingly acid waters

Oregon coastline
Daniel Powell
The rugged waters off Oregon are turning acidic.

Carbon emissions are turning seawater acidic, and environmentalists say that's a violation of the Clean Water Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the EPA, challenging the agency's assertion that the increasingly acidic ocean off Oregon and Washington meets federal water-quality standards.

Perhaps a quarter of the carbon dioxide that we pump into the air mixes into the sea, where it reacts with water to produce bicarbonate. The byproducts of these reactions are loose hydrogen atoms, which lower the marine pH. The concentration of hydrogen ions in surface ocean waters has risen 26 percent since the Industrial Revolution, reducing pH levels by 0.1 unit.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Power up: California may force utilities to buy big batteries for renewables

Notrees project
Energy Department
The Notrees Wind Storage Demonstration Project in Texas combines wind turbines and advanced lead-acid batteries.

The sun would never set on solar power under an ambitious new proposal in the Golden State.

The California Public Utilities Commission is considering new rules that would require the state's utilities to spend heavily on large batteries. That would allow wind and solar energy produced during sunny and blustery conditions to be saved and sold even on calm nights.

The proposed rules would help utilities meet California's ambitious requirement that 33 percent of their electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. They would also help spur a battery industry that's considered critical for the widespread adoption of renewable energy.

The rules [PDF], which could be approved as soon as today, would require PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to install battery systems capable of holding 1.3 gigawatts of electricity by 2020. Once juiced up, that much battery power could be tapped to provide electricity to about 1 million homes.


Tar-sands waste going to fuel dirty power plants in China

Chicago petcoke pile
Josh Mogerman
Petcoke piled up along the Calumet River in Chicago.

As cheap tar-sands oil flows through America's refineries, the dusty byproduct -- known as petroleum coke, or "petcoke" --  is piling up throughout the country. The stuff is too nasty to burn in U.S. power plants, so oil companies are doing the next best thing -- shipping it to China, where somebody else can burn it.

Petcoke has been heaping up along the Calumet River in Chicago -- and the problem will likely get worse once BP turns its Whiting Refinery into one of the world's biggest tar-sands processors. Over in Michigan, Detroit's mayor and other lawmakers recently fought for months before ridding their riverfront of mounds of petcoke that a Koch Industries subsidiary had stockpiled there.

So where does the petcoke go from there? The U.S. EPA will not issue new petcoke burning licenses. It's just too dirty. Some has been sent back to Canada to be burned in power plants there. And now the Wall Street Journal reports that China's hunger for the dirty fuel is surging:

While countries across Latin America, Europe and even the Middle East are buying a lot of U.S.-produced gasoline and low-sulfur diesel that meets their stringent air-quality control, China is in the market for something dirtier.