Blue Marble

Yet Another Oil Train Has Derailed and Caught Fire

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 9:44 PM EST
The scene of crude oil train that derailed in Ontario, Canada on February 14.

Earlier today, yet another massive train carrying crude oil derailed and caught on fire, this time in northern Illinois near the Mississippi River. One-hundred-and-three of the the train's 105 cars were carrying crude oil—from where was not immediately clear—eight of which derailed. Two of the derailed cars have caught on fire, according to BNSF Railway which owns the train, sending plumes of smoke and fire into the sky above Galena, Illinois, a town of just over 3,300.

The image of smoldering oil train cars is now a familiar sight: Incidences of exploding oil trains have been rapidly rising in North America thanks to the fracking boom in North Dakota's Bakken oil fields (Bakken oil is potentially more flammable than normal crude) and the slow transition away from old, unsafe rail cars. Oil-by-rail carloads are up 4000 percent from last year in the United States and this is the the third derailment in North America in the last three weeks, including a massive explosion in West Virginia on February 16 that injured one person and spilled oil into the nearby Kanawha River. In fact, a Department of Transportation report predicted trains carrying crude and ethanol would derail an average of 10 times per year in the next two decades. This is bad news for people who live near railways and the ecosystems in which they reside.

People living within a mile radius of today's derailment have begun evacuating, and authorities are monitoring the Mississippi River for leakage. BNSF Railway has not responded to inquiries from Mother Jones about the age of the trains' cars and whether the train was carrying Bakken crude. We will update the post with when we have that information. The Birkshire Hathaway subsidiary did tell Reuters, however, that no injuries had been sustained.

Below are pictures of the spill from Twitter:

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McDonald's Just Banned Antibiotic-Laced Chicken. Here's Why That Matters.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 6:49 PM EST

This week, McDonald's pledged to phase out serving chicken raised on antibiotics that can also be used to treat humans. To understand the giant implications this has for the meat industry, consider my colleague Tom Philpott's previous reporting on the topic. For starters, the livestock industry uses an astounding four-fifths of all antibiotics consumed in the United States. Mostly, these drugs are used not to treat infections but to promote growth in animals.

There is evidence that livestock antibiotic use contributes to antibiotic resistance, lessening the effectiveness of drugs that are medically important to  humans. And scientists have observed so-called "superbugs" migrating from farms to outside communities. It's a major problem—indeed, scientists predict that antibiotic failure will kill 20 million people by 2050. And yet, despite all this, the government still allows livestock producers to dose their animals with antibiotics.

McDonald's chicken move is a tacit acknowledgement that antibiotics are a precious resource. And considering that the chain serves 68 million people a day in practically every nation on Earth, it sends a powerful message indeed.

Ringling Bros. Announces It's Finally Ending Elephant Acts

| Thu Mar. 5, 2015 2:29 PM EST

On Thursday, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey said it will end the use of elephant acts by 2018—a move that follows decades of mounting criticism and public concern over the show's abusive treatment of the animals. Ringling's parent company, Feld Entertainment, cited a "mood shift" experienced by circus-goers who have grown "uncomfortable with us touring with elephants" for the decision.

President Kenneth Feld also said local legislation barring certain circus practices, such as the use of bullhooks, made it increasingly difficult for the company to continue including elephants in its performances. "This decision was not easy, but it is in the best interest of our company, our elephants and our customers," he said in a statement.

In 2011, Mother Jones published an explosive, yearlong investigation looking into Ringling's treatment of elephants, including the regular employment of electric shocks and whippings to control them:

Several of the beatings targeted Nicole, a twentysomething elephant named after Kenneth Feld's eldest daughter. Sweet-natured but clumsy, Nicole would frequently miss her cues to climb atop a tub and place her feet on the elephant next to her, Stechcon said in his videotaped statement. "I always rooted for her, 'Come on, Nicole, get up,'" he said. "But we left the show, brought the animals back to their area, and…we took the headpieces off, and as I was hanging them up, I heard the most horrible noise, just whack, whack, whack. I mean, really hard. It's hard to describe the noise. Like a baseball bat or something striking something not—not soft, and not hard…I turned around to look, and this guy was hitting her so fast and so hard [with the ankus], and sometimes he would take both hands and just really knock her, and he was just doing that. And I was, like, I couldn't believe it."

The investigation also exposed that Feld Entertainment had spent millions of dollars on PR campaigns to hide such abuse from the public and fend off lawsuits:

It was part of a multimillion-dollar spy operation run out of Feld headquarters to thwart and besmirch animal rights groups and others on the company's enemies list, according to a stunning Salon piece by Jeff Stein. Feld had even hired Clair George—the CIA's head of covert operations under President Reagan until his conviction for perjury in the Iran-Contra scandal. (George, who died in August, received a pardon from President George H.W. Bush.)

Thursday's announcement to phase out the elephants, which have been a staple for the Ringling brand for more than a century, has been met with praise from animal rights activists. Feld Entertainment said the elephants will be transitioned to the company's elephant conservation center in Florida.

For more, read our in-depth investigation here.

Mitch McConnell Is Now Telling States To Ignore Obama's Climate Rules

| Wed Mar. 4, 2015 2:55 PM EST

It's no secret that Republicans leaders hate President Barack Obama's flagship climate initiative, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. So far, the main opposition has been at the state level. The new rules require every state to submit a plan for cleaning up its power sector, and a host of bills have cropped up—primarily in coal-dependent Southern states—to screw with those plans. These bills tend to be backed by GOP state lawmakers, the coal industry, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

The thrust of much of this legislation is to effectively stonewall the Environmental Protection Agency and hope that the rules get killed by the Supreme Court. It's a long shot, given the Court's long history of siding with the EPA. And the longer states delay in coming up with their own plan, the more likely they'll be to have one forced on them by the feds.

But in a column for Kentucky's Lexington Herald-Leader yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) threw his weight behind this obstructionist strategy:

This proposed regulation would have a negligible effect on global climate but a profoundly negative impact on countless American families already struggling…

Don't be complicit in the administration's attack on the middle class. Think twice before submitting a state plan—which could lock you in to federal enforcement and expose you to lawsuits—when the administration is standing on shaky legal ground and when, without your support, it won't be able to demonstrate the capacity to carry out such political extremism.

Refusing to go along at this time with such an extreme proposed regulation would give the courts time to figure out if it is even legal, and it would give Congress more time to fight back. We're devising strategies now to do just that.

There's plenty to take issue with in McConnell's analysis. For starters, the EPA rules are unlikely to cause any problems with blackouts or sky-high electric bills, as the senator implies. But I'm sure it'll make good ammunition for state lawmakers and fossil fuel interests as battles over this thing play out this year.


Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/03/03/3725288_states-should-reject-obama-mandate.html#storylink=cpy

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/2015/03/03/3725288_states-should-reject-obama-mandate.html#storylink=cpy

Netanyahu and Obama Agree: Global Warming Is a Huge Threat

| Tue Mar. 3, 2015 12:15 PM EST

Today Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed Congress on Iran's nuclear ambitions, at the invitation of House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). The speech has caused a considerable flap, with Democrats criticizing it as an unprecedented affront to President Barack Obama.

But while the president and Netanyahu might have vastly different visions for how to deal with the threat posed by Iran, they do seem to agree on one thing: the threat posed by climate change. Over the past few months Obama has repeatedly emphasized the dangers associated with global warming. In his State of the Union address in January, he said that "no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations" than climate change. And in a recent national security document, Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat." Despite GOP protestations to the contrary, Obama's concerns are legitimate: New research released yesterday, for example, found that man-made climate change was a key factor in the Syrian civil war.

It seems Bibi had the same thought as early as 2010, when his cabinet approved a wide-reaching plan to reduce Israel's carbon footprint. At the time, the prime minister said that "the threat of climate change is no less menacing than the security threats that we face." From the Jerusalem Post:

At the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit in December 2009, Israel pledged to reduce emissions by 20 percent from a "business as usual" scenario by 2020.

"The recent dry months, including the driest November in the history of the state, are a warning light to us all that the threat of climate change is no less menacing than the security threats that we face. I intend to act determinedly in this field. In a country that suffers from a severe water shortage, this is an existential struggle," Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at the cabinet meeting.

Israel doesn't face the kind of political resistance from climate change deniers that is all too common in the United States, said Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East. But the country is struggling to meet its carbon emission and renewable energy targets because government spending is so heavily concentrated on defense, he said.

"They've given the issue a great deal of lip service," he said, "but in practice none of these [targets] have been met."

Still, Israel has been at the forefront of developing seawater desalination technology to confront drought. The country has the biggest desal plant in the world, and last year Netanyahu signed a deal with California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to share research and technology for dealing with water scarcity.

Watch a US Senator Use a Snowball to Deny Global Warming

| Fri Feb. 27, 2015 11:09 AM EST

 

This story was first published by the Huffington Post and is reproduced here via the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Senate's most vocal critic of the scientific consensus on climate change, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, tossed a snowball on the Senate floor Thursday as part of his case for why global warming is a hoax.

Inhofe, who wrote the book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, took to the floor to decry the "hysteria on global warming."

"In case we have forgotten, because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record, I ask the chair, 'You know what this is?'" he said, holding up a snowball. "It's a snowball, from outside here. So it's very, very cold out. Very unseasonable."

"Catch this," he said to the presiding officer, tossing the blob of snow.

Inhofe went on to list the recent cold temperatures across parts of the United States, which included 67 new record lows earlier this week according to the National Weather Service, as evidence that global warming claims are overhyped. "We hear the perpetual headline that 2014 has been the warmest year on record. But now the script has flipped."

Despite the record lows in some parts of the country, the nation overall has been experiencing a warmer than average winter.

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This Koala Is So Cute You'll Want It To Get Away With Stealing This Kid's Car

| Wed Feb. 25, 2015 4:52 PM EST

Never leave your Land Rover unattended in the Outback. This "cheeky" koala tried to drive off before the car's owner, a teen about to return home from school, foiled its getaway.

Happy Wednesday.

The Senate Just Failed to Override Obama's Keystone XL Veto

| Tue Feb. 24, 2015 3:19 PM EST

Update—Weds, March 4, 2:50pm ET: The Senate vote to override President Obama's veto has failed, falling four votes shy.

We knew this was coming: About a month after the Senate narrowly passed a bill to force President Barack Obama to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, the president vetoed the bill Tuesday afternoon, hours after the White House said he would do so "without drama or fanfare or delay."

From the AP:

The contentious legislation arrived at the White House on Tuesday morning from Capitol Hill, where Republicans pushed the bill quickly through both chambers in their first burst of activity since taking full control of Congress....

The move sends the politically charged issue back to Congress, where Republicans have yet to show they can muster the two-thirds majority in both chambers needed to override Obama's veto. Sen. John Hoeven, the bill's chief GOP sponsor, said Republicans are about four votes short in the Senate and need about 11 more in the House.

The veto, which the White House has long promised on this or any other Keystone-approval bill, is the first one in the last five years. It essentially blocks what Republican leaders like Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.) have called a top priority of this congressional session.

Obama's beef with the bill isn't necessarily with the pipeline itself. Instead, the president wants the approval process to go through the State Department, which normally has jurisdiction over international infrastructure projects.

In his memo to the Senate, the president said: "Because this act of Congress conflicts with established executive branch procedures and cuts short thorough consideration of issues that could bear on our national interest—including our security, safety, and environment—it has earned my veto."

The administration still hasn't indicated whether it will approve the pipeline, even though there aren't any more bureaucratic hurdles to clear. Early this month, the window for government agencies to weigh in closed. The most significant comment came from the Environmental Protection Agency, which said that if oil prices go much lower than they are, moving oil from Canada by truck or train could become too expensive. So a green-light for the pipeline would lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions than if it were not approved.

The final question now is whether the president agrees.

This post has been updated.

Exploding Oil Trains Could Become a Horrifying New Normal

| Mon Feb. 23, 2015 12:11 PM EST
An oil train smolders after it derailed and exploded in West Virginia last week.

Last week, a train carrying oil from North Dakota derailed in West Virginia, spilled oil into a river, and sent a horrifying fireball shooting into the sky. The incident came only a few days after another oil train spill in Ontario. In fact, in the last few years the number of oil train accidents has skyrocketed, thanks to booming production in the northern US and Canada that has overwhelmed the existing pipeline network.

Oil train accidents like those could become a regular fixture in headlines across the US, according to a Department of Transportation analysis uncovered by the Associated Press over the weekend:

The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.…

If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.

The report blamed the projections on the drastic uptick in oil-by-rail traffic, as well as on severely lagging safety standards for rail cars (check out our in-depth multimedia story on the latter here).

Eat Like A Mongolian, Not Like An American

| Fri Feb. 20, 2015 2:29 PM EST

The world, as a whole, is getting less hungry. Over the past two decades, the levels of undernutrition in developing countries from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia have declined. Unfortunately, so has the quality of our diets.

That's the main takeaway of a study published by The Lancet Global Health on Wednesday that looked at the dietary patterns across 187 countries—comprising about 89 percent of the global population—in 1990 and 2010. Check out the maps below, which break down eating habits by country on a scale of green (the healthiest) to red (the unhealthiest). The first map shows which countries are eating the most healthy foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and milk (see, for example, Chad, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Turkey). The second map shows which countries are eating the most unhealthy foods that are high in fat and salt, as well as sugary drinks, unprocessed red meats and processed meats (see the United States, Russia, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Brazil, among others).

Fumiaki Imamura et al / The Lancet Global Health

The next three maps show changes in dietary patterns from 1990 to 2010, again on a color scale, with green countries making healthy changes and red countries making unhealthy changes. Russia, Mongolia, Laos, and Paraguay are outpacing many other countries with their increase in nutritious foods, as the top map shows, while the second map reveals that Uganda, Vietnam, and Armenia are quickly finding a taste for fatty or sugary treats. And when it comes to overall dietary changes since 2010, shown in the last map, it seems that China, Angola, and Congo aren't doing very well.

Fumiaki Imamura et al / The Lancet Global Health

A team of researchers made these maps by evaluating hundreds of national surveys about diets. Looking at the big picture, they found that people around the world are, on average, eating more nutritious foods than they did 20 years ago, but they're also digging into more junk—much more junk. "Consumption of healthier foods and nutrients has modestly increased during the past two decades; however, consumption of unhealthy foods and nutrients has increased to a greater extent," the researchers explained.

People around the world are, on average, eating more nutritious foods than they did 20 years ago, but they're also digging into more junk.

On average, older adults are eating better than younger adults, while women are eating better than men. There are also major differences regionally, depending on countries' income levels. While people in the United States, Canada and western Europe are among the worst in the world for high consumption of unhealthy food, they're eating less junk than they used to, which helps explain reductions in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and cardiovascular mortality in these countries. By comparison, people in many developing countries eat relatively healthy diets, but they're eating more junk than they did in the past.

These socioeconomic variations have ramifications for public health. International food programs usually focus on fighting hunger, but in nearly every region of the world, the researchers said, diet-related health problems due to undernutrition are now less common than those due to non-communicable chronic diseases, and the food we eat plays a role in causing many of these diseases. By 2020, nearly three-quarters of all deaths globally will be attributable to non-communicable chronic diseases, they said, adding that without major changes to diet quality, these diseases and obesity will become much more common among the world's poor.

It's unclear exactly why low-income countries are eating more unhealthy foods, but the reasons are probably varied. In northwest sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers said, food prices have increased and diet quality has worsened, perhaps due to economic liberalization and marketing of unhealthy foods to the region's wealthiest people. Violent conflicts might also play a role in certain countries, by hindering food production and trade. "Our work should help to link the possible economic and political factors to actual diets," they wrote, "and to assess determinants of the potential divergence in consumption of healthy foods in the poorest nations in the world."