As Extreme Cold Engulfs Eastern U.S., Fossil Fuel Mishaps Leave Disaster Areas on Fire

February 19, 2015

As extreme cold temperatures blast the eastern third of the United States, the fossil fuel industry has seen a series of disasters in less than a week. On Wednesday, an explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery south of Los Angeles rocked the surrounding area with the equivalent of a 1.4-magnitude earthquake. The blast in California happened as oil tank cars from a derailed train remained on fire Wednesday in West Virginia, two days after the accident. The derailment forced the evacuation of two towns and destroyed a house. The derailment in West Virginia happened just two days after another oil train derailment in Ontario, Canada, which also left rail cars burning for days. We are joined by Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International. "Climate policy and energy policy are not usually discussed together in this country," Kretzmann says. "Climate change means that we need to transition away from fossil fuels, sooner rather than later."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Subzero temperatures have engulfed the eastern third of the United States today as a blast of Arctic air rolls in from Siberia. The cold is expected to shatter records in more than a hundred places. It comes as scientists at Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have published a new study linking extreme weather, including record cold, to climate change. They say warming temperatures in the Arctic have caused "wavier" fluctuations in the jet stream, the air current which carries weather patterns. The scientists predict the frequency of extreme weather will increase as the Arctic continues to warm.

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry, which is largely responsible for global warming, has seen three major disasters in less than a week. On Wednesday, an explosion at an ExxonMobil refinery south of Los Angeles rocked the surrounding area with the equivalent of a 1.4-magnitude earthquake. Plant worker Jason Hernandez described what it felt like.

JASON HERNANDEZ: I felt the explosion really, really, really, really, really hard through my body. And it scared me. I got scared, and I’m not going to lie. First thing I thought of was: Let’s go meet up with our team, figure out what’s going on, seeing smoke going through the air. And we had a good—we had a good evacuation point. Everything was planned, well executed. Everybody met where they were supposed to meet. Nobody got hurt, thank God. I didn’t get hurt myself, thank God. And I just appreciate being here right now.

AMY GOODMAN: The blast in California happened as oil tank cars from a so-called bomb train remained on fire Wednesday in West Virginia, two days after the accident. The derailment forced the evacuation of two towns and destroyed a house. The man who lived in the house, Morris Bounds, told local news station WSAZ he barely escaped as the tank cars barreled toward him.

MORRIS BOUNDS: I made it about 10 feet. I heard the house caving in behind me. So I ran out of the house in my socked feet in the snow. The house was engulfed in flames.

AMY GOODMAN: The derailment in West Virginia happened just two days after another oil train derailed in Ontario, Canada, which also left tank cars burning for days.

We go now to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Steve Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International.

Steve, can you talk about what’s happening? This—all of these derailments, explosions, the backdrop being some of the coldest weather this country has experienced.

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: Yeah, I think you framed it well, Amy, I mean, and it’s too bad that most people are not making the link here. Climate policy and energy policy are not usually discussed together in this country, but there’s a huge link, because, of course, the fossil fuel industry is primarily responsible for climate change. And that’s what we’re seeing. This is—you know, these explosions that have happened, the crude by rail derailments, the Torrance refinery explosion, etc., this is all a completely and sadly predictable result of the all-of-the-above energy policy that the Obama administration has been pursuing and that really is the only real energy policy in town here in Washington, unfortunately, despite the fact that the administration says that they’re very committed to addressing climate change. And indeed, parts of the administration seems to be, but I think they haven’t quite made the connection yet that these two things are fully—are not fully compatible.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting you talk about climate policy and energy policy not being linked. When you watch television, all the networks now, they don’t just have weather centers, they have extreme weather centers or severe weather centers. So you tune in for news and you tune in for weather, but rarely do they link the two, like, for example, call it a "climate change center" or a "global disruption center," when they’re giving you the news. I want to turn to West Virginia first.


AMY GOODMAN: What happened there?

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: So, you had a train that was coming from the Bakken, the North Dakota crude that’s very light and very flammable, that came around a turn at the gentleman’s house, where we heard from him just a moment ago, and came off the rails and ignited. These were actually the newer railcars that, we have been told, are supposed to be safer than the old railcars, which are being phased out. And yet, obviously, and sadly, they are not particularly safer, and they are not adequate to protect public safety. You know, there’s new regulations that are pending by the Department of Transportation to actually, supposedly, make crude by rail safer, but these regulations are already watered down. Industry is intervening again to water them down further. And, you know, what we’re seeing here is a regulatory process in Washington that, unsurprisingly, remains captured by the fossil fuel industry and their millions of dollars in campaign donations, and really has the bureaucracy here, for the most part, cowed.

AMY GOODMAN: So how has West Virginia been affected by—and what is an oil bomb train?

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: So these are, at times, mile-plus-long trains filled with explosive crude oil, that move through communities, not only in West Virginia, but increasingly across the United States, move through people’s backyards, move by schools, etc., etc. And there has been a huge increase in these trains in recent years as we’ve seen an explosion in North American oil production. And so, that is—they’re moving Bakken crude, which is highly explosive, as we saw before. They’re also moving tar sands crude in some cases. And we had, actually—over the weekend, we had an explosion in Canada of a train carrying tar sands crude. So, you know, this is—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened there.

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: This is a huge problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened there, Stephen, Ontario, Canada.

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: Yeah, similarly, you had a tar sands train that went off the rails and exploded. And, you know, this is, again, the kind of thing that we have been seeing happen again and again with this industry. You know, I think it’s interesting, because you get the—the industry says, "Oh, well, this is why we need pipelines, because rail is more dangerous." But that’s not a choice at all. A choice between pipelines or rail is really a choice—you know, it’s a tremendously bad choice. The real choice is about energy policy for the future and whether or not we’re going to choose clean energy, or whether or not we’re going to continue to use fossil fuels, that not only pose great dangers to our communities, but also, obviously, ultimately drive climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Kretzmann, you have a map on the Oil Change International website which illustrates the shipment of oil by rail across North America. You see colored lines, representing different rail companies, which form a vast web across the entire United States. Talk about how communities, from California to Florida to Massachusetts, are impacted by these shipments.

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: So, these shipments are increasing in frequency and going through people’s backyards on a regular basis. And we totally encourage people to check out the map on and see where these rails are running through your community. Unfortunately, it’s been extremely difficult to get real-time data from the states, not to mention the federal government, or the companies about when these shipments are due and what the exact routing of them is at different times. That is not something that the regulators have seen fit to actually release to the public. And I think something that people would be very interested to know—for instance, if bomb trains were moving behind day cares when day cares are in session, or schools or these kind of things. People, you know, deserve to know what the risks are of this huge increase in industrial activity, and that information is not being made available at this point. So...

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Kretzmann, I want to go to the oil refinery explosion, the ExxonMobil explosion that took place yesterday in Los Angeles, which came on the 18th day of an historic strike by oil refinery workers—not, though, at that plant. More than 5,000 workers at 11 plants are on strike in the largest action of its kind in decades. The workers say safety issues, including safe staffing levels, are their top concern. While workers at the plant that exploded in Torrance had not gone on strike, their colleagues were on a strike at a nearby plant in Carson, California. Refinery worker Erica Kent spoke to local station KCAL in Los Angeles earlier this month.

ERICA KENT: They say that a certain amount of fatigue is comparable to being drunk, right? So when you’re working seven or eight days in a row, sometimes 13 or 14 in a row, and you’re working 12 hours a day on a rotating shift, it creates a safety hazard.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what she is saying, what the refinery worker Erica Kent is saying, and although the Torrance plant, the workers were not on strike, how they’re related?

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: I mean, I think, throughout this, what we’re seeing is the industry, unsurprisingly to those of us who have followed the industry for years, continues to prioritize profit over people and safety. And, you know, that extends to the workers. Oil Change International, my organization, has put out—was quick to put out a solidarity statement with the striking workers, but it also extends to communities, and ultimately to our entire planet, where the industry is recklessly moving forward and prioritizing their profits over all of our safety at the end of the day. And so, you know, there’s a clear—there’s a clear connection here and a clear pattern of behavior that is irresponsible and dangerous and tragic, because, you know, at some point people will recognize that climate change means that we have to transition away from fossil fuels, sooner rather than later. You know, all of the above is climate denial, at the end of the day.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Steve, the Republican-controlled House gave final passage to a measure approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline, but the bill does not have enough votes to override a veto from President Obama, who has vowed to reject it. On Friday, Republican House Speaker John Boehner called on Obama to approve the pipeline.

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER: This really is pretty simple. Keystone XL pipeline is a good idea for our economy, and it’s a good idea for our country. Members of both parties know it. They’ve put politics aside and passed this very important bill. The president’s own State Department says this project will create up to 42,000 direct jobs. Many labor unions know it. They say Keystone just isn’t a pipeline, it’s a lifeline for America’s construction workers. And the overwhelming majority of the American people know it, as well. So, to the president, I would just say this: Do the right thing. Sign this bill and help us create more jobs in America and create a healthier economy.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Speaker Boehner. President Obama said he’ll reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline if it would significantly increase carbon emissions. Earlier this month, the EPA warned the pipeline could increase greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of about eight new coal-fired power plants. Steve Kretzmann, if you could talk about this and then about the divestment movement? We only have a minute to go. The latest school to divest from fossil fuels, New School here in New York City, has announced it will divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. In an email to the university, President David Van Zandt and Provost Tim Marshall announced, "The New School’s Board of Trustees approved a motion to divest from fossil fuels. The Board’s Investment Committee has also approved a significant investment of the university’s endowment in renewable energy." How significant is this, Steve Kretzmann?

STEPHEN KRETZMANN: I mean, I think the divestment movement is one of the most significant developments on the climate change activism scene ever. We’re seeing a huge upwelling of people who are concerned about fossil fuels, and it’s—you know, it’s less about the exact amount of money that’s being divested moment to moment, and more about the mobilization of people who are really making clear that their future should not be fossil fuels. You know, we saw this 400,000 people in the streets in New York City last fall, and that was an amazing moment. You know, power comes from two places. Speaker Boehner gets it from the money he gets from the fossil fuel industry, but the activists and people who are concerned about clean energy get it from an increasing number of people who are concerned about this. And ultimately, we believe that the president will side with those people and see the science for what it is, which is that the Keystone XL pipeline will indeed cause a significant increase in carbon emissions and should be rejected.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Kretzmann, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Oil Change International. We’ll link to your map of the rails through the United States carrying oil trains at

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, why did close to 400,000 people march in Buenos Aires, Argentina? Stay with us.

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