DMU Dean of Global Health calls for environmental action


KC McGinnis | November 27, 2015

For Dr. Yogesh Shah, Associate Dean of Global Health at Des Moines University, human health and environmental care go hand in hand.

Dr. Shah penned a detailed op-ed in The Gazette this week on the importance of a clean environment in the health of patients like the ones he cares for.

“For years I have been telling patients, family and friends to stay healthy by eating well, socializing, learning new things and exercising,” he wrote. “But what I realized is that none of that matters if we aren’t living in a healthy environment with clean air and water.”

In the article Dr. Shah called Iowa’s elected officials and U.S. presidential candidates to promote policies that would lead to higher adoption of clean energy like wind and solar, aiming for these sources to make up at least 50% of Iowa’s energy portfolio by 2030. Utilizing these alternative energy sources is crucial not just for energy independence but for human health.

“Climate change is more than an environmental issue — it is a human health issue and we must take action now to protect the most vulnerable and our common home,” he wrote. “To protect our individual health, we must protect the health of our environment.”

Dr. Shah was among the presenters at this year’s Climate Science Educators Forum, hosted by Des Moines University, where he talked about how climate change has effected disease-carrying insect populations. Dr. Shah has also linked climate change to increased asthma and infectious diseases like malaria.

Contentious Bakken pipeline hearings begin

A map of the proposed Dakota Access pipeline (via Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition)
KC McGinnis | November 13, 2015

Hundreds of concerned citizens gathered outside the community building at the Boone County Fairgrounds yesterday for a public hearing on the proposed Bakken pipeline that would cut through 18 Iowa counties.

The three-member Iowa Utilities Board heard testimonies from people both for and against Texas company Dakota Access, LLC. using eminent domain to acquire the land needed for the pipeline, with those for the pipeline citing jobs it would generate and those against citing Americans’ need to reduce consumption of fossil fuels. Per the proposal a 30-inch diameter underground pipeline would carry more than half a million barrels of oil per day under Iowa farmland and other public and private lands. 37 percent of landowners approached by Dakota Access have rejected buyouts from the company to build the pipeline on their land, sometimes under intense and repeated pressure.

The Iowa Utilities Board will hear evidence for and against the pipeline starting November 16 and running into early December, with a decision coming by January. Dakota Access already has piping in storage in Iowa, in what some believe is an attempt to convey that the issue has already been settled.

The hearing comes just days after President Obama’s historic decision to strike down the Keystone XL pipeline. Unlike Keystone XL, the Bakken pipeline doesn’t need executive approval from President Obama because it doesn’t cross an international border. Once finished it’s likely developers would look for ways to expand the Bakken’s reach to the Alberta tar sands, just as pipeline companies agreed to expand a North Dakota natural gas pipeline to Alberta earlier this year. The next President may face even tougher opposition from pipeline companies wishing to expand a completed Bakken pipeline into other territories.

10-year study finds Renewable Fuel Standard falls short

A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
A corn field in Pomeroy, Iowa. (keeva999/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | November 12, 2015

A ten-year study conducted by the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture on the Renewable Fuel Standard has called into question the benefits of dependence on corn ethanol.

The study used both economic analysis and agricultural modeling to determine whether the RFS has so far met its economic and environmental goals.

“Corn ethanol has resulted in a number of less favorable environmental outcomes when compared to a scenario in which the traditional transportation fuel market had been left unchanged,” the study reads.

Examining the life cycle emissions of corn production including land use change through practices like excessive tilling which release carbon into the atmosphere,  the study finds that corn ethanol may be an inefficient means of reducing total carbon emissions. Citing a University of Minnesota study, the report also links increased corn production due to the RFS to heightened levels nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and ammonia. Corn ethanol production releases over 800% more particulate matter and sulfur dioxide than would be released through conventional gasoline production.

The study also examined the perceived economic benefits of the corn ethanol industry, which has received $50 billion in taxpayer subsidies since 2005. An analysis of the profitability of corn ethanol without subsidies showed that the industry is unlikely to survive without mandated fuel volume requirements.

“A rational investor interested in collecting a reasonable return would not have invested in a new ethanol facility after October 2008,” the study reads.

The study has implications both for corn growers and policy makers in Iowa. It concludes by recommending investment-based solutions to help get more environmentally and economically friendly energy sources off the ground like wind and solar, which do not have the built-in infrastructure of mature technologies like those related to ethanol production. It suggests that the $50 billion in taxpayer funding of corn ethanol could have been better spent on these sorts of energy sources.

List ranks Iowa as America’s 9th cleanest energy state


Nick Fetty | November 4, 2015

Iowa ranks ninth in the nation for renewable energy production, according to a recent article by the website Modernize.

The list points out that between 1960 and 2013 Iowa has generated nearly 80 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The Hawkeye State is the lone representative from the Midwest to crack the top 10.

“Maybe Washington, California, and Oregon come as no surprise – we associate them with environmental concern and the geographical variety to embrace multiple renewable technologies simultaneously. But the rest of the states that top the renewables ranking embody a striking mix of size, population, political preference, and socioeconomic standing. If this ranking indicates anything, it’s that success with renewables is possible in any combination of circumstances.”

Data on the list comes from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) which has been tracking stats since 1960. The article also included lists for other energy-related categories such as Top 10 by Renewable Energy Percentage, Bottom 10 by Renewable Energy Percentage, Top 10 Most-Improved CO2 Emitters Since 1990, and Top 10 CO2 Emitters. The article also points out that efforts to utilize renewable energy have been successful in traditionally industrial states such as Michigan, New York, and Ohio.

While Iowa generates approximately 27 percent of its electricity from wind power, nearly two-thirds of electricity production in the Hawkeye States still comes from coal-fired power plants, according to July 2015 data from the EIA. Nearly 10 percent of Iowa’s electricity comes from nuclear power at the state’s sole nuclear plant in Palo.

Iowa cellulosic ethanol plant will be world’s largest

Corn from a farm in Perkins, Iowa. (Don Graham/Flickr)
Corn from a farm in Perkins, Iowa. (Don Graham/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | November 3, 2015

A $225 million DuPont plant in Nevada will be the largest of its kind in the world, according to DuPont.

The plant, which opened Friday with appearances by both U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and Rep. Steve King, will produce cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that uses stover, the inedible parts of the plant, instead of the grain itself: stalks, cobs, leaves and perhaps even other plants like miscanthus. According to the Associated Press DuPont hopes to produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year at the plant.


The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires the use of cellulosic biomass increase to 16 billion gallons by 2022 as part of the Renewable Fuel Standard. The fuel, which has long involved a much more complex and difficult process than traditional ethanol, may benefit farmers by allowing them to sell additional byproducts from their fields. Most importantly, the fuel produces 90 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions over its life cycle than petroleum.

However, common criticisms to the Renewable Fuel Standard may still apply to the DuPont plant, as it is yet unclear if the plant will be completely reliant on corn stover, increasing Americans’ dependence on and expansion of corn to the detriment of biodiversity and water quality.

Iowa State professor explores history of Persian Gulf oil

Michael Christopher Low, an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University (Iowa State University)
Michael Christopher Low, an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University (ISU News Service)
KC McGinnis | October 29, 2015

Disease outbreaks and drought during pilgrimages were important factors in the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the late 19th century, according to recent research by Iowa State University history professor Michael Christopher Low.

Low’s recent essay published in Comparative Studies in Society and History outlines how the discovery Saudi Arabia’s massive oil reserves came in part as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s desire to find potable water in the region. After years of drought and an extensive cholera outbreak in the late 1800s, the Ottomans saw the discovery of clean water in the Arabian peninsula as a way to prevent the spread of disease following annual pilgrimages to Mecca. This search for water eventually went underground, where explorers instead found historic petroleum reserves.

In an ISU News Service interview Low noted a degree of irony in this discovery in light of Saudi Arabia’s current dependence on oil for desalinization, where the state gets most of its drinking water. He said that 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil goes to desalination facilities, without which the state would be unable to function.

Low’s historical research has implications for today as several U.S. states including drought-stricken California consider ocean water desalinization as an option for the future of clean water. These plants, which discharge waste water with even higher salt content back into the oceans and many of which depend on fossil fuels, could have compound negative effects on marine ecosystems and the atmosphere.

Either way, Low’s research shows that historical inquiry can inform current policy, especially around connected resources like petroleum and water.

Event focuses on 25 years of climate change


Nick Fetty | October 12, 2015

A handful of Iowa professors, policy makers, and even a former Hawkeye football player will discuss the past 25 years of climate change during an event on Tuesday.

The event is in collaboration with the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research’s (CGRER) 25th anniversary and will feature presentations from CGRER co-founders Greg Carmichael and Jerry Schnoor, U.S congressman Dave Loebsack, Iowa state senator Joe Bolkcom, and former Iowa congressman David Osterberg, as well as former Hawkeye turned solar energy entrepreneur Tim Dwight. The program is divided into three 25-minute sections focusing on different aspects of climate change: science and the public interest, the effect of climate change in Iowa, and the politics of climate change.

The event is sponsored by WorldCanvass, a collaboration by UI International Programs, UI Video Services, and FilmScene. The event goes from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at FilmScene, 118 East College Street in Iowa City, and is open to the public. An hour-long social hour will take place prior to its 5 p.m. start time.

For a full schedule and for more details, click here.