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Train Carrying Volatile Bakken Crude Explodes in Northwestern Illinois

Yesterday's mishap is the third of its kind in the past three weeks

Yet another train carrying volatile crude oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota derailed yesterday, this time in northwestern Illinois near the historic tourist area of Galena overlooking the Mississippi River. It follows recent derailments in West Virginia and Ontario. The area in which it occurred was not as remote as the Ontario derailment. However, it did not require as extensive evacuation as the one in West Virginia in which hundreds were forced from their homes in the bitter cold. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, firefighters were allowing the fireball to burn itself out.

Fireball from train blastPhoto by Chad WinterlandSmoke billows from the train derailment outside Galena, Illinois.

The 105-car train included 103 cars loaded with the crude oil, with eight derailing. It’s not known yet if any oil spilled into the Mississippi River.

Residents of the Galena area might be especially uneasy about trains rolling through their area. A month ago, a train carrying ethanol derailed in Dubuque, Iowa 15 miles away, with a dozen cars going off the tracks and several landing on the frozen Mississippi River. That fire burned for a day before it went out.

So far this year, these derailments, followed by explosions and fires, have happened only in unpopulated and sparsely populated areas. But their frequency is alarming to more densely populated communities on the rail paths of these trains with many saying it’s only a matter of time until a derailment causes a disaster like the one that killed 47 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013— or worse. “Rail transport of crude oil has increased 4000% in the past six years,” said Marc Yaggi, executive director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “Many of these trains travel along and over our waterways, putting our communities, first responders and drinking-water sources directly in harm’s way. This latest derailment shows yet again how explosive this practice can be. Urgent action is needed by the federal Department of Transportation to put the brakes on the unsafe transport of crude oil.”

The train that derailed yesterday had passed earlier through the Minneapolis-St. Paul area as well as the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2008, railroads carried 9,500 carloads of crude oil; in 2013, they carried more than 435,000 carloads. In the first half of 2014, 258,541 carloads were delivered. Rail imports of …more

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SeaWorld Attempts to Muzzle Academic and Scientist Critical of Cetacean Captivity

Effort linked to company’s portrayal of any person or group who opposes captivity as being “radicals”

When it comes to silencing those who cause damage to their bottom line, SeaWorld clearly has no qualms with pulling dirty tricks.  At the American Cetacean Society's annual conference last November, SeaWorld defied convention and requested that a panel that included scientists who are staunchly anti-captivity not be recorded.

Now, one of those panelists is speaking out.

Orca at SeaWorld, San DiegoPhoto by Mike LiuDr Thomas White says SeaWorld’s current financial troubles are self-inflected due to its management’s failure to recognize the growing body of scientific evidence about cetacean intelligence and shifting public opinion about how animals should be treated.

Dr. Thomas White, Professor of Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University and author of In Defense of Dolphins, is everything that SeaWorld fears — a qualified, respected individual whose book and presentations clearly illustrate why keeping animals in captivity is unethical. He was invited to speak on a panel on  captivity with Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute and two captivity proponents, one from the Dolphin Research Center and the other from SeaWorld.

Here what White has to say of his experience at the conference: "Right before the session began, we were told that the session wasn't going to be recorded [unlike all the other sessions at the conference]. I later discovered that SeaWorld had made the request."

White suspects the reason behind SeaWorld's request is linked to their portrayal of any person or group who opposes captivity as being “radicals.” It is more challenging to paint university professors as radicals, however.  "The fiction is easier to maintain as long as there's no evidence to the contrary," White says. 

White isn’t exactly a radical animal rights activist. Yes, like many animal welfare advocates, he does believe that dolphin and orca captivity is morally unethical given their emotional and cognitive intelligence. But White is also a business ethicist who believes corporations owe it to their stakeholders to be profitable. SeaWorld’s current financial troubles are self-inflected, he says, due to its management’s failure to recognize the growing body of scientific evidence about cetacean intelligence and shifting public opinion about how animals should be treated. Because it’s losing money by ignoring the writing on the wall, the company is violating its duty to its shareholders, White argues.

SeaWorld’s strategy to shut White up is common for businesses and governments alike. Take …more

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Oil Can’t Compete With Renewables, Says National Bank of Abu Dhabi

Returns on fossil fuel investments aren’t keeping up with solar and wind, and are less likely to do so in the future, says bank report

You wouldn’t expect a bank in the oil-rich Middle East to be touting the future of renewable energy over that of oil. But that’s just what the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) is doing with its new report, “Financing the Future of Energy: The opportunity for the Gulf’s financial services sector.”

Solar panelsPhoto by Alejandro FloresDespite the recent plunge in oil prices, the report says that energy demand will be more efficiently filled by renewables, offering more reliable and lucrative investment opportunities than oil.

Aimed primarily at investors and focusing on financial performance and potential, the report found that fossil fuels just weren’t keeping up with solar and wind, and were less likely to do so in the future, even if oil prices dropped much lower than they are now.

“It provides insights into how that community might engage with public and private sector stakeholders to create a more energy efficient economy, turning the aspirations of the region into a reality that will attract the attention of the rest of the world and unlock significant financial opportunities,” says the report’s introduction.

Energy demand is expected to triple in the next 15 years in the rapidly growing Persian Gulf region — already the biggest energy consumer per capita in the world — a demand far outstripping the current supply. Yet, despite the recent plunge in oil prices, the report says that that demand will be more efficiently filled by renewables, offering more reliable and lucrative investment opportunities than oil.

“Some of the report’s findings may surprise you, as they did me,” writes NBAD CEO Alex Thursby in the report’s introduction. “For example, renewable energy technologies are far further advanced than many may believe: solar photovoltaic (PV) and on-shore wind have a track record of successful deployment, and costs have fallen dramatically in the past few years. In many parts of the world, indeed, they are now competitive with hydrocarbon energy sources. Already, more than half of the investment in new electricity generation worldwide is in renewables. Potentially, the gains to be made from focusing on energy efficiency are as great as the benefits of increasing generation. Together, these help us to reframe how we think about the prospects for energy in the region.”

Among the report’s surprising findings are that fossil fuels are already uncompetitive with …more

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Climate Change Poses Serious Threats to Food Distribution

The risks of a highly centralized food system

By now there has been a steady stream of news about climate change’s impacts on food production. Heat waves, drought, and wildfire are damaging harvests in California, Australia and Brazil. Warming and acidifying oceans threaten seafood stocks. Rising temperatures are causing declines in crops as different as wheat and cherries, while extreme precipitation and floods have destroyed crops across the US and Europe. Increasing temperatures and CO2 levels are reducing the nutritional value of grasses and increasing heat stress, in the process impairing animals’ ability to produce eggs, meat, and milk.

BJ�s Wholesale Club, Merritt Island FLphoto by RustyClark (hottnfunkyradio.com), on FlickrThe same effects of climate change that are hurting food production are also highlighting the vulnerability of food distribution systems that rely on long-distance transportation, centralized wholesale markets, and the often concentrated food production sources.

At the same time, climate change is also beginning to disrupt another key aspect of food security: how food gets to market. The same effects that are hurting food production – storm surges, floods, and other extreme weather events all around the world – are also highlighting the vulnerability of food distribution systems that rely on long-distance transportation, centralized wholesale markets, and the often concentrated food production sources.

Farmers everywhere are getting used to the idea of a very different future as they deal with changing patterns of precipitation, temperature, and soil conditions. “Like a lot of growers, I was a little bit in denial, hoping the climate was not changing,” says Elizabeth Ryan, who owns and operates Breezy Hill Orchard, which grows apples in New York’s Hudson Valley. Now, she says, “we’re seeing acute weather swings” and “hail that used to be episodic and occasional is now frequent.”

That the US produces such a massive volume of food does not mean that food security here is invulnerable to climate change, says Diana Donlon, director of the non-profit Center for Food Safety’s Cool Foods Campaign. By way of proof, she points to huge losses that resulted when Hurricane Irene hit Vermont in 2011 and the epic 2013 floods in Colorado. Donlon also notes that in economically developing countries an estimated 40 percent of all food waste already occurs because of problems …more

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A Journey to “The Place Where Life Begins”

A photo essay from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Last summer three friends and I had the rare opportunity to immerse ourselves in the rugged wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There are no roads in the refuge, and very few people visit this “the Last Frontier.” Most visitors fly in by bush plane, and then camp and hike within the region. Others backpack in. Last July, my group flew over the Brooks Range and then river rafted through the North Slope to the frigid Arctic Ocean. For two weeks and 160 miles we paddled down the Upper Marsh Fork to the Canning River, then converging with the Staines River, to finally arrive at shores of the Beaufort Sea.

photo of an arctic tundra landscape with many caribou grazingall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this image to view a photo essay from the ANWR

The Canning is an interesting river in that it forms the western border or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the vast, 19-million acre preserve that is North America’s largest wildlife conservation area. To the west of us lay the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, the central hub of oil extraction on the North Slope. On the east shore of the Canning the wildlife preserve begins.

In January, President Obama made big news when he directed the US Fish and Wildlife Service to begin managing all of the reserve as legal wilderness – meaning no development will be allowed there, including oil development in what is called the reserve’s 1002 area, the section that oil companies and environmental groups have fought over for decades.

Naturally, environmentalists were thrilled with the president’s move. “The Coastal Plain is the wild heart of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is why Americans from all walks of life have advocated for its protection for more than half a century,” Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement at the time. “This Wilderness recommendation at last recognizes the wonder and importance of the region for Native cultures, wildlife, and anyone seeking to experience one of America's last great wild places." Oil companies and their political allies were, unsurprisingly, angry with the president’s move. “It's clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said. “The promises made to …more

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Nature in the City

In Chicagoland, a quiet rewilding is underway

A cougar prowls wooded ravines in a wealthy community, searching for a mate. A coyote slinks through a human-built landscape on its way to its den outside one of the country’s largest football stadiums. Out in the chain of lakes, a recreational boating area, a plant biologist finds lotus plants blooming for the first time in generations. Further still from the city, a black bear wanders cornfields, seeking a home.

coyote by rail tracksPhoto by Ryan StavelyA coyote walks by the rail tracks near Jackson Park Terrace in Chicago. There are more than 2,000 coyotes living in metropolitan Chicago

Thirty years ago, this was all improbable — perhaps impossible. Now, wildlife is returning to the shores of the Great Lakes, even into the heart of the great city of Chicago. Although it’s home to nearly 10 million people, greater Chicagoland also houses more wildlife than at any time in recent history. The city and its suburbs are being rewilded. 

Ecological impoverishment has a long and sad history in this country, including the greater Chicago region. When white settlers first arrived in the Great Lakes region, the area had an abundance of deer, coyote, fox, otter, beaver, and a smattering of bobcats, wolves, and elk, too. In the early nineteenth century, there was more than enough wildlife; settlers could trap beaver, muskrat, and otter for fur, go hunting for sport, and have more than enough to feed themselves. In time, though, the city and its hinterland swelled in population, with little to no change in the every man for himself hunting policy. By the turn of the last century, white-tailed deer, by far the most abundant large animal here, was extirpated in the region.

But now the pendulum is swinging back toward ecological health. In the absence of any real predator, deer have overpopulated the area. In 1957, the first modern, regulated hunting season for the animal began. By the 1990’s, the deer had so capitalized on the available habitat and lack of predators that professional culling became necessary, though controversial.

It seemed, for a bit, that Chicago area residents had only to deal with the deer. Then the coyotes started to appear.

In 2000 the Urban Coyote Research program began to study the increasing reports of coyote sightings in suburban Dundee, located northwest of the city center. The …more

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China Imposes One-Year Ban on Ivory Imports Following Mounting Criticism

Wildlife advocates hopeful, but say more needs to be done to save African elephants from being poached to extinction

A bit of positive news to end this week with: Yesterday, China imposed a one-year ban on ivory imports. From the Associated Press:

"The State Administration of Forestry declared the ban in a public notice posted on its official site, in which it said the administration would not handle any import request.

"In an explanatory news report, an unnamed forestry official told the state-run Legal Evening News that authorities hope the ban would be a concrete step to reduce the demand for African tusks and to protect wild elephants. The official said the temporary ban would allow authorities to evaluate its effect on elephant protection before they can take further, more effective steps."

a herd of African elephantsPhoto by Steve GarvieThe elephant population in Africa has fallen 65 percent since 1980, from 1.2 million to 420,000 in 2012.If the killings continue at this rate, scientists predict that African elephants may become extinct in much of their range in as little as 10 years.

The ban, which went into immediate effect, seems to be in response to mounting criticism from the global community that increasing Chinese demand for ivory is fueling rampant poaching and threatening drive African elephants to extinction.

Just last week, British naturalist Sir David Attenborough and several other conservationists and British members of Parliament sent a letter to the Chinese President Xi Jinping urging him to “to act decisively to finally end China’s domestic ivory trade (both legal and illegal).”  The move also comes days ahead of a visit to China by Prince William, who is the royal patron of Tusk, a charity working to conserve wildlife in Africa. The 32-year-old prince, who will land in Beijing on Sunday, is expected to bring up the issue of ivory and wildlife trafficking during his visit.

The elephant population in Africa has fallen 65 percent since 1980, from 1.2 million to 420,000 in 2012, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. It is estimated that at least 100,000 elephants were killed for their tusks in just three years — between 2010 and 2012. If the killings continue at this rate, scientists predict that African elephants may become extinct in much of their range in as little as 10 years.

photoname Photo by Gavin Shire/ USFWSWhile the poached ivory makes its way to …more

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