Judge orders halt of Biden’s executive order pause on new gas, oil leases


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 18, 2021

A federal judge ruled that the Biden administration must restart regular sales of oil and gas leases.

The order forces the administration to abandon a central piece of its environmental agenda. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January that temporarily paused new oil and gas leases on public lands to give time to the administration to review leasing policies. The reviews intended to better understand the leases’ contributions to climate change. The executive order was a return to Obama-era policies.

In the ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, he granted a request by Jeff Landry, Louisiana’s attorney general, and a dozen other Republican-led states and ordered the administration to hold quarterly lease sales nationally. The complaint filed by Landry and other states was introduced at the end of March. Doughty’s order will hold until there is an official decision made in the case.

The initial ruling said the “court does not favor nationwide injunctions unless absolutely necessary,” suggesting the injunction was not needed. Another concern is the monetary losses from not leasing this land.

While the decision garnered support from some republicans nationally, environmentalists are calling for the executive order’s pause to be permanent, according to Iowa Capital Dispatch. A long-term ban would assist the Biden administration in meeting its goal of conserving a third of U.S. land and waters by 2030.

Environmental council suggests Iowa’s utilities should speed up retirement of coal usage


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 17, 2021

Iowa should speed up the disuse of coal plants in the state according to new analysis from the Iowa Environmental Council.

The council said Iowa’s investor-owned utilities do no need coal power to meet the demands of residents. Steve Guyer, the council’s energy and climate policy specialist, said there are options to help Iowa build on its wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources, including power generated with hydrogen and battery storage of electricity. These energy options are enough to meet the needs of Iowans.

The Iowa Environmental Council is also joining forces with the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Sierra Club to appeal a decision by the Iowa Utilities Board that allowed MidAmerican Energy Company’s coal plants to evade reviews this year. The lawsuit is leaning on Iowa’s law that requires biennial review of plants to manage coal emissions, suggesting the MidAmerican company ignored options to retire coal plants and decrease emissions.

MidAmerican is the largest carbon polluter in the state according to the council, due to its owning and operating of five coal plants in Iowa. The company has no plan to retire the use of coal regardless of the council’s new analysis. The lawsuit was filed in a Polk County District Court on June 11.

MidAmerican has invested in the use of wind and solar resources in recent years, according to Iowa Capital Dispatch. The company has retired four coal plants in the last six years, but Guyer said coal is not needed at all in the state and no longer creates an effective “base load” of electricity.

Des Moines Design Panel Approves $28 Million River Recreation Project


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 16, 2021

A Des Moines city design panel approved plans for a $28 million conversion of Des Moines’ Scott Avenue dam into a fishing and kayaking area on Tuesday. 

The Scott Avenue conversion is the largest of four major projects planned for water trails development downtown and is one of the first to use portions of a $25 million federal grant arranged by Central Iowa Water Trails and the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The project is a part of the $100 million-plus plan to improve safety by replacing or changing low-head dams while improving recreation. While the biggest project at the Center Street Dam will be voted on later, the other approved projects are at the Prospect and Birdland parks and near Harriett Street. 

Plans for the Scott Avenue project add three “drop-offs” for kayaking, a fish passage, seating in areas near the river and a secondary dam to improve safety. At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion was focused around using limestone, granit, or other natural materials, such as planting prairie and lawn grass for stabilization and decor. 

Work on the project is expected to take two years, beginning in July 2022. 

Des Moines Water Works Urges Customers to Conserve Amid Drought


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 15, 2021

Des Moines Water Works has asked customers to voluntarily conserve water as drought and near-record water demand strains supply. 

On Monday, the utility asked metro residents to reduce their lawn watering by 25%. The utility has a capacity of 110 million gallons a day however, when demand reaches past 90 million the system risks water pressure problems. On June 9, Water Works pumped 88.6 million gallons, now the second highest peak since 2012 when 96 million gallons were pumped. 

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, CEO Ted Corrigan noted if it doesn’t rain soon, the utility may need to ask for a 50% lawn watering reduction. This is only the second time during Corrigan’s 31 years at Water Works that the utility has asked customers to voluntarily reduce water usage. The last time a cutback was encouraged was in 2012. 

Water Works has had to lower its usage of the Des Moines River due to toxic algae issues which re-emerged a month early this year; making the river unusable. The current main source of tap water, the Raccoon River is running at 7.5% of its median flow.

Over the past decade, Iowa has spent over $40.6 million at six locations to treat and prevent algae toxin outbreaks. Nationwide, this issue has become a $1.1 billion issue according to a study by the Environmental Working Group

The request impacts Des Moines, West Des Moines, Johnston, Urbandale, Clive, Norwalk, Pleasant Hill and Ankeny city residents. 

Carbon-Capturing Pipelines are Being Proposed in Iowa


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Josie Taylor | June 14, 2021

A Texas based company called Navigator CO2 plans to build pipelines across Iowa that can capture carbon dioxide emissions from ethanol, fertilizer and other industrial plants. Iowa’s Bruce Rastetter’s Summit Agricultural Group has also put out plans to capture carbon emission. CEO of Navigator Matt Vining, along with president of Summit Ag Investors, Justin Kirchhoff, did an interview with the Des Moines Register.

Both companies have the same goal of stopping carbon dioxide emissions from reaching the atmosphere. This would ideally stop carbon dioxide emissions from contributing to climate change. The companies will do this by liquefying the carbon dioxide, and then injecting it into a rock formation under the ground. 

Vining told the Des Moines Register that once the carbon dioxide is injected into the rock formation, it will be there permanently. Kirchhoff said their project can cut carbon emissions from ethanol plants in half. 

Vining commented on the controversial nature of pipelines. In the past, oil and gas pipelines have been opposed by many, including Indigious American communities. Vining this is different because, “Capturing CO2 from the environment is in the public’s best interest … it’s a public need”.

Neither company has an exact layout for where the pipelines will be. 

Majority of Iowa currently experiencing some degree of drought


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 11, 2021

Nearly 90 percent of Iowa’s land is experiencing a drought of differing degrees due to low levels of precipitation in May.

32 percent of the state rated abnormally dry, 47 percent is in a moderate drought, and 10 percent received a severe drought rating according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map. Precipitation in May was more than an inch below average this year. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported on Thursday that the statewide average was 3.71 inches, ranging from 1.95 to 8.53 inches across Iowa. The start of June also saw a below average rainfall, dragging drought indicators lower.

The warm and dry conditions in the last month mixed with a below-average rainfall has expanded the land impacted by drought conditions. Northern Iowa saw drought conditions increase to cover two-thirds of the top half of the state according to the report. Southern Iowa saw similar levels of drought expansion as well.

Current weather conditions led to “below normal” stream-flow conditions across half of Iowa. Several river basins in the state are seeing lower flows, but portions of the Raccoon and Des Moines river basins have “much below normal flows”. The decrease could lead to about 69 percent less runoff than normal at the Missouri River basin above Sioux City, the report said.

As of June 10, only southeastern Iowa is free of drought and abnormal dryness conditions.

Local leaders urge Congress to reclassify PFAS


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 10, 2021

Local and community leaders are asking Congress to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as hazardous materials this legislative session. This classification would trigger federal cleanup standards when the chemical is in drinking water.

PFAS can be found all over the United States in drinking water, soil, and air because they are commonly used in nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing. These chemicals are part of a family of persistent synthetic chemicals that can cause adverse health issues. Exposure to PFAS can lead to liver damage, obesity, high cholesterol, and cancer.

The two most well studied PFAs are perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS. Des Moines, Davenport, and Bettendorf all have high levels of these two chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps since February to act on PFAS by creating a council on the “forever chemical”. PFAS are also found in the Department of Defense’s firefighting foam that is used at many airports.

Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters introduced legislation that would hold the Pentagon accountable for its use of the chemicals and oblige it to initiate clean up programs on military bases. New Mexico is currently suing the Department of Defense after PFAS spread to several farms in the state.

Congressional leaders are advocating for specific deadlines to ensure the legislation is effective and the Department of Defense follows through with the clean-up.

UI Researchers Develop a New Model to Measure Air Pollution from Soil By Using Satellites


Elizabeth Miglin | June 9, 2021

Researchers at the University of Iowa Technology Institute (ITI) have developed a new model to measure air pollution from soil using satellite data. 

Led by visiting ITI scholar Tong Sha, the study focused on nitrogen oxides (NOx) derived from soil (SNOx). Traditionally, NOx are thought of as emissions from combustion of fossil fuels however, scientists suspect SNOx may be increasingly responsible for poor ozone air quality, especially in agricultural areas. Although existing data to support this belief is lacking, the research started at the University of Iowa has led to a new assessment model which may yield more accurate estimates of SNOx. 

The new model updated the Weather Research and Forecasting simulator and chemistry, known as WRF-Chem, in order to improve an SNOx estimate scheme. With this, the researchers used an array of satellite sensors including the Global Precipitation Measurement to measure precipitation, Soil Moisture Active Passive to measure soil moisture and temperature, and others to show for the first time from space the increase of SNOx right after the fall of rain on dry soil. 

Although the research focused on rural California, its findings apply to rural cropland areas in Iowa and elsewhere. The study found around 40% of California’s NOx emissions are from soil and in the cropland areas SNOx emissions exceeded human-source emissions. Furthermore, the team found SNOx emissions are responsible for an additional 23% surface ozone concentration in California as a whole. 

The study was published on May 18th in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology. 

University of Iowa Researchers Host First Annual BioBlitz


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 8, 2021

Researchers at the University of Iowa are hosting the 1st Annual BioBlitz at the newly restored Ashton Prairie on July 10th. The study gives participants the opportunity to contribute the first data points to a multi-year study by examining insect diversity changes over time at the site. 

Throughout the event, participants will be shown how to examine insects under a professional microscope and learn how to identify different species with the naked eye and the iNaturalist app. Guests will also hear from the leaders of the prairie restoration project on the vision for the prairie as well as how the collections and observations will contribute to greater research on ecological health. Event staffers noted “As this is the 1st Annual event, we hope to see some young scientists who can grow along with the biodiversity at the prairie over the years.”

Facilitators of the event include the University of Iowa Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Office of Sustainability and the Environment, The Iowa Raptor Project, UI Museum of Natural History, the Iowa City Science Booster Club, and 10 visiting Interdisciplinary Evolutionary Sciences research students with additional support from the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

The event will be hosted at the Prairie Reconstruction Project Site at the UI Ashton Cross Country Course and will go from nine am to noon. Free registration is open for the event on the University of Iowa events calendar website. 

Sea Ice is Thinning Faster than Previously Thought


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Josie Taylor | June 7, 2021

Sea ice thickness is found by measuring the height of the ice above the water, but this measurement can be thrown off by snow. In order to adjust for this, scientists have been using a map of snow depth in the Arctic that was made decades ago and does not consider climate change. 

In research published by The Cryosphere, scientists and researchers used a new computer model designed to estimate snow depth as it varies year to year, instead of the old map. They found that sea ice in key coastal regions was thinning at a rate that was 70 to 100 percent faster than had previously been thought.

Robbie Mallett, the PhD student in Earth Science at the University of London who led the study said, “The thickness of sea ice is a sensitive indicator of the health of the Arctic. It is important as thicker ice acts as an insulating blanket, stopping the ocean from warming up the atmosphere in winter, and protecting the ocean from the sunshine in summer. Thinner ice is also less likely to survive during the Arctic summer melt.”

Mallett also mentioned that one of the reasons why it is thinning quicker than they had thought is because snow is forming later and later in the year. 

Co-Author and Professor, Julienne Stroeve, said that there are still uncertainties in their model, but this is a closer look at accuracy than what was previously had. 

Another group of researchers at the University of Colorado looked at ice thinning as well with their new research model. They found that ice was thinning 70 to 110 percent faster, similar to the research group mentioned earlier.