Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Train explosion in Quebec stokes debate about oil transport

A firefighter walks past a burning train wagon at Lac Megantic, Quebec, July 6, 2013.
Reuters/Mathieu Belanger
A firefighter walks past a burning train at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

The latest disaster caused by the transport of oil across North America has wrecked the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. A driverless train loaded with crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota derailed and exploded early Saturday in the town’s center.

Dozens of buildings were leveled and at least five people were killed, while 40 more were still missing as of Monday morning. The fracked oil was en route to New Brunswick, which is home to the largest oil refinery in Canada. From Reuters:

The train, which did not have an engineer aboard when it derailed, was hauling 72 tanker cars of crude from North Dakota to eastern Canada. It rolled downhill from an overnight parking spot, gathered speed and derailed on a curve in the small town of Lac-Megantic at 1 a.m. on Saturday.

Each car carried 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Four caught fire and exploded in an orange and black fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air and flattened dozens of buildings, including a popular bar.

“It looks like a war zone here,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The disaster plunged the media into debate: Is it safer to move oil through underground pipelines (à la MayflowerKalamazoo, and Keystone XL), or to move it by rail?

Frackers and tar-sands miners are extracting record amounts of oil in America and Canada. Existing pipelines can’t carry the whopping bounty to refineries, so energy companies are seeking to lay lattices of new pipes. Meanwhile, the glut of liquid hydrocarbons is being loaded onto trains, which are being sent vast distances — and are triggering high-profile spills and accidents.

The Toronto Globe and Mail argues in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster that "[p]ipelines are the safest way of transporting oil and natural gas, and we need more of them, without delay." The New York Times considers the pipeline-vs.-train question more impartially, quoting environmental experts:


Solar-powered sedan hits Dutch streets

This solar-powered car, Stella, was unveiled Thursday.
Bart van Overbeeke
This solar-powered car, Stella, was unveiled Thursday.

Plug-in electric car? That's so 2013.

The electric sedans of the future will also generate their own photovoltaic power.

That's the philosophy behind a new class of competition in this year's World Solar Challenge.

Since 1987, the challenge has had solar-powered cars racing across the parched Australian outback every couple years. But the solar-powered vehicles that have competed in the challenge, while exciting and innovative, have been anything but consumer-friendly. They have typically carried only an uncomfortable driver in a craft shaped like a sheet of aluminum foil precariously perched over three wheels.

This year's challenge, scheduled for October, will push teams to go even further. The new Michelin cruiser class has been created for vehicles that could conceivably be marketed as family sedans. Ten teams have entered, and they will compete against each other for points awarded based on such criteria as practicality, attractiveness, and energy consumption.

On Thursday, one of the those teams unveiled its entry, taking a car it dubbed Stella to cordoned-off Dutch streets to strut its photovoltaic stuff. And it's pretty as a pug. Watch:

The team of 22 Eindhoven University of Technology students behind Stella has vowed to register the car for on-road use, helping to demonstrate its potential commercial viability. From a press release:

‘Stella’ is the first ‘energy-positive car’ with room for four people, a trunk, intuitive steering and a range of 600 kilometers.


U.K. throws party for world’s biggest offshore wind farm

While Americans were celebrating their independence from Britain on Thursday, the British were celebrating a major project that is reducing their dependence on fossil fuels.

The beginning of operations at the world's biggest offshore wind energy plant was belatedly celebrated along an estuary near the mouth of the Thames River. There, 175 turbines have been producing enough power for nearly 500,000 homes since April.

London Array
London Array
Part of the world's biggest offshore wind power plant.

British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the Thames Estuary site Thursday with his climate minister to ceremonially cut the ribbon at the London Array. From The Guardian:

The London Array has taken the crown of the world's largest offshore windfarm from the 500MW Greater Gabbard project off the East Anglian coast. The UK currently has more than 3.6GW of offshore wind power capacity, but is expected to have around 18GW by the end of the decade.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Biofuel program could invite giant grass invasion

Here's another environmental incentive to ditch the car: That gas you buy at the pump could soon be helping towering invasive grasses wreak havoc on America's ecosystems.

The EPA recently approved the use of giant reed and napier grass as biofuel ingredients under its Renewable Fuel Standard program. The program requires oil companies to blend a minimum amount of biofuel into the gasoline that they sell. To receive EPA approval under the program, fuel created from grass must produce 60 percent less greenhouse gas than does normal gasoline.

But in approving the use of the two grasses as feedstocks for biofuel, the federal government has begun promoting plantations that environmentalists warn threaten the American landscape and its native species.

Giant reed
Giant reed is a giant pest, but the EPA figures it could also be a giant tool in the fight against climate change.

Enviros are especially concerned about potential new plantations of giant reed, aka Arundo donaxThis monstrous grass can grow two-inch wide stems and reach 20 feet in height. And once it begins wreaking havoc in the wild, the invasive grass can be an expensive (and energy-intensive) nightmare to remove. From a letter to the EPA [PDF] signed by dozen of environmental groups last year:

Arundo donax displaces native vegetation and negatively impacts certain threatened and endangered species such as the Least Bell’s Vireo. In the United States, Arundo donax is listed as a noxious weed in Texas California, Colorado, and Nevada. Additionally, it has been noted as either invasive or a serious risk in New Mexico, Alabama, and South Carolina. Once Arundo donax has invaded an area, control is difficult and costly. In California, costs range between $5,000 and $17,000 per acre to eradicate the weed. Other estimates put that cost as high as $25,000 per acre.


Pepsi: Cancer for a new generation?

Beyonce Pepsi ad
Beyonce's not worried about additives.

Please don't take this as an endorsement. But when it comes to avoiding cancer while you gulp down a sugar-blasting brand-name cola, Coke is it.

Pepsi has been lagging behind its main competitor in removing carcinogenic meth from its flagship cola product. Well, 4-methylimidazole, to be precise.

The chemical can form in trace amounts when caramel coloring used in cola is cooked. It has been found to cause cancer in rats.

Everybody who drinks corporate soda has been drinking the stuff for years. That was supposed to come to an end after California began requiring cancer warnings on products containing elevated levels of 4-methylimidazole. The new regulations prompted Coke and Pepsi to announce early last year that they would take steps to remove the chemical from their products nationwide.

But the Center for Environmental Health tested colas and found that while Californians are drinking safer sodas than they were before, some of the colas sold outside of California still contain high levels of the substance. From the nonprofit's website:

If you live in California, Coke and Pepsi products are made without 4-MEI, a chemical known to cause cancer. But in testing of cola products from ten states, CEH found high levels of 4-MEI in ALL Pepsi cola products, while 9 out of ten Coke products were found without 4-MEI problems.

Read more: Food


Climate change could be leading to more El Ninos

Peruvian fishermen christened El Niño, Spanish for "Christ child," because it normally arrived around Christmas.
Peruvian fishermen came up with the name El Niño, Spanish for "Christ child," because it normally arrived around Christmas.

El Niño is one of Earth's most influential climatic phenomena. Its occasional arrival, heralded by warming in parts of the eastern Pacific Ocean, can be a harbinger of floods in Peru, droughts in Australia, harsh winters in Europe, and hurricanes in the Caribbean. Yet we know precious little about it.

But this week, two separate scientific studies chipped away at the mystery.

One study reveals that the El Niño phenomenon has been occurring more frequently as the globe has warmed. The other paper promises to dramatically improve our ability to foretell the weather pattern's arrival.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Volcanic rock may be used as giant wind-energy battery

Volcanic eruption
A volcanic idea.

The Pacific Northwest's powerful rivers and sweeping winds can generate a lot of electricity, but not continuously. Where better to store some of that energy when there's a surplus than in the rocky residue of a volcanic eruption?

Scientists at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Bonneville Power Administration think underground porous rocks produced by volcanic eruptions could be used as a large battery system. They say excess power produced by wind farms in the region could be stored for months as pressurized air before being converted into electricity. From National Geographic:

This is much more than an academic exercise in a region that's home to one of the largest networks of hydroelectric dams in the United States, a recent boom in wind installations, and state mandates for renewables on the grid. ...

Focusing on subterranean basalt reservoirs in eastern Washington State, the authors of this new study have examined the feasibility of deploying a system known as compressed air energy storage, or CAES. They analyzed geological data from petroleum exploration to identify a pair of sites where these volcanic rocks could store enough energy to power a total of about 85,000 homes per month.


Nothing to sneeze at: Climate change is making your allergies worse

Get used to it.
Get used to it.

As if the increased threat of catastrophic weather events weren’t enough, climate change also has to mess with us in ways less apocalyptic but arguably more frustrating on a daily basis. Like by making our allergies way worse.

More CO2 in the atmosphere stimulates plant growth and pollen production, and as a result, allergy doctors across the country are reporting increases in patient visits -- new ones who have never before experienced symptoms as well as longtime sufferers getting more miserable each year.

Quest Diagnostics, which tests for allergies, reported a 15 percent increase in ragweed allergies from 2005 to 2009, according to USA Today. Scientists are straightforward about the climate connection:

"The link between rising carbon dioxide and pollen is pretty clear," says Lewis Ziska, a weed ecologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a top researcher in the field.

His lab tests show that pollen production rises along with carbon dioxide. It doubled from 5 grams to 10 grams per plant when CO2 in the atmosphere rose from 280 parts per million (ppm) in 1900 to 370 ppm in 2000. He expects it could double again, to 20 grams, by 2075 if carbon emissions continue to climb. The world's CO2 concentration is about 400 ppm.

Not only is pollen more prevalent, but longer growing seasons mean allergens stay around for more of the year. And some scientists see pollen counts doubling much sooner than 2075.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Climate change threatens Maine’s lobsters

Maine lobster
Threatened by climate change.

Rising flood waters. Exotic disease outbreaks. Melting glaciers.

Pfft, trifling details. Mere distractions from more tangible impacts of climate change.

Because why? Because LOBSTERS!

The Natural Resources Council of Maine, an environmental group, launched a campaign Tuesday that could grab the attention of some who might otherwise not see any reason to care about global warming. From the AP:

In a press conference on the Portland waterfront, lobster industry advocates said carbon pollution from power plants, cars and elsewhere is warming up and acidifying waters in the Gulf of Maine.

Warmer waters drive lobsters to migrate to colder waters and make them more susceptible to disease, while acidified waters hurt lobsters' ability to form adequate shells, they said.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Oil spill stretches 10 miles down a river in Mississippi

Chickasawhay River oil spill
The Wayne County News on Youtube
See those dark globs? They're oil floating down the Chickasawhay River.

A 10-mile stretch of Mississippi's Chickasawhay River was fouled by more than 200 barrels of oil after equipment at a drilling well malfunctioned.

The Wayne County News reported in an online video that cleanup efforts were complicated by the oil spill's remote location. The U.S. EPA, Coast Guard, and state and local authorities have responded to the spill, the newspaper reported.

The spill was reported by Logan Oil on Thursday, and the emergency clean-up operations are expected to continue at least until the end of this week. From WHLT:

Joseph Dunlap of the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency says oil flowed roughly four miles down the Chickasawhay River, which is located about one mile from the oil field.

Read more: Uncategorized