Solar Installations Could Save Local Governments $375 Million


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Nicole Welle | March 1, 2021

A new report showed that Iowa taxpayers could save $375 million if every county seat, county government and school district installed an average-sized solar energy system.

Auditor Rob Sand reached out to local governments, school districts and the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association for information on solar installations in the state. Of the 27 projects he randomly chose to analyze, 13 responded to questions. The report revealed that solar panels save local governments and school districts an average of $26,475 each year, and each installation could save $716,437 over its lifetime, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Sand came up with the idea for the study while discussing energy savings with family members who own solar panels. He hoped to add solar energy to his Public Innovations and Efficiencies (PIE) program, a project that aims to save taxpayers money through energy conservation. Once the study was complete, Sand noted that school districts could use sales tax receipts for installation and maintenance, reducing pressure on general funds supported by property taxes.

Some local governments and school districts have avoided paying upfront costs for their installations altogether. The city of Letts and Sigourney schools both build solar systems with no upfront payments, and others could do the same by leasing equipment or buying power from other solar energy system owners. The price of solar installations dropped 90% over the past 10 years, and most systems can pay for themselves in five to 15 years, depending on individual circumstances.

Iowa Senate Subcommittee Advances Plan to Let Grocers Opt Out of the Bottle Bill


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Nicole Welle | February 22, 2021

An Iowa Senate subcommittee passed legislation last week that would allow grocers to stop accepting cans and bottles if they are within 20 miles of the nearest redemption center.

The bill’s purpose is to address the concerns of grocers and other beverage retailers that wish to opt out of the bottle bill. However, some worry that the new bill would not be convenient for consumers and encourage recycling. Sen. Claire Celsi, a democrat from West Des Moines, told the committee that it would also fail to reduce the amount of litter going into Iowa’s landfills and waterways, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Iowa Sierra Club representative Jess Mazour agreed with Sen. Celsi, adding that the new bill should be expanded to include containers like water, iced tea and sports drink bottles.

“We know that the bottle deposit law is wildly popular with Iowans and that you should expand it, not take this opportunity to gut it and make it less convenient for Iowans across the state,” Mazour added.

Other sections of the bill would require the Alcoholic Beverage Division (ABD) to track unclaimed refunds and enforce the new law. Any unclaimed deposits would also go into a “taxpayer relief fund,” preventing distributors from continuing to keep them. However, Jon Murphy of the Iowa Beverage Association said that the ABD might lack “enforcement capabilities,” an issue that the Iowa DNR is facing with the current bill.

The proposed legislation will now move to the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee for consideration.

Iowa GOP Senators Move to Cut Tax Exemptions for Forest Reserves


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Nicole Welle | February 15, 2021

GOP members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted last week to advance a bill that would reduce tax breaks for Iowa forest reserves.

Currently, landowners qualify for a 100% tax break on land made up of forests as small as two acres. The new bill would reduce the forest reserve tax break to 75% of the property value, require a minimum of 10 acres to qualify and place a five-year limit on exemptions. GOP senators who introduced the bill argued that it could prevent landowners from cheating the system, but Democrats criticized its timing as Iowa fights chronic water pollution and continues to recover from the derecho that destroyed 25% of the state’s trees last August, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids criticized Republicans for pushing a bill that could interfere with derecho recovery. Lawmakers have made little effort to help landowners recover, and increased taxes would only add to the burden of recovery costs, Hogg said. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott also opposed the bill, saying that Iowa’s limited forest helps reduce water pollution and supports the state’s wood industry.

Iowa’s woodlands currently support a $4 billion forest industry. Because woodland owners have to wait until a tree is mature enough to cut it down, the tax breaks help alleviate the costs of growing and maintaining their trees in between harvests. Without the current exemption, some woodland owners could be forced to replace some of their trees with row crops. This crop conversion could accelerate soil erosion and increase water pollution in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.

If passed by the Senate, the bill’s language would require the Iowa DNR, rather than the agriculture department, to verify that land qualifies as a reserve. However, the bill does not allocate extra money to the DNR, and the state did not conduct a financial study to estimate the added cost.

Drought Conditions Remain in Western Iowa Despite Extra Snowfall in January


Graphic of Iowa map showing drought conditions
Via U.S. Drought Monitor

Nicole Welle | February 11, 2021

Precipitation levels were slightly higher than usual last month, but the added snowfall failed to improve drought conditions in western Iowa.

2020 was an extremely dry year for the state of Iowa, and many parts of the state have not yet recovered. In January, precipitation was 0.35 inches above average for that time of the year. However, it also averaged 4 degrees warmer than usual, and the Iowa DNR reported that at least half of the state is currently experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions. At the end of the month, a small section of northwest Iowa was in extreme drought, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

DNR officials warned that the shallow soils underneath the snowfall in western Iowa are dry enough to potentially push drought conditions into the spring. This could be problematic for farmers as they go into planting season. Even if precipitation levels continue to meet or exceed averages over the next few months, snowmelt likely won’t be able to improve soil conditions very quickly since groundwater is already frozen in place.

The U.S. drought monitor reported that 52% of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, but it is still a significant improvement from three months ago when it was at 64%. State and Federal officials will host a virtual public meeting to discuss the conditions in western Iowa further on January 13.

Human Noise Pollution is Threatening Marine Life


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Nicole Welle | February 8, 2021

A new scientific review confirmed that human-made noise is disrupting the ocean soundscape and harming marine life.

Anthropogenic sound from sources like ships, seismic surveys, pile drivers, dynamite fishing and drilling platforms threatens the countless marine species that rely on sound to navigate and communicate. The new review, published last week in the journal Science, combined the work of 25 authors in various fields of marine acoustics to form a more complete synthesis of evidence on the effects of noise pollution. While past studies have outlined the effects noise pollution has on individual large marine animals, this study includes many groups of marine life and aims to increase global awareness of the issue, according to a New York Times article.

The study shows that increasing levels of anthropogenic noise not only negatively affect large mammals like whales and orcas, but also groups like zooplankton, jellyfish and clownfish. After clownfish are conceived in coral reefs, they drift in the open ocean as larvae until they have grown enough to swim against the tide. They then use the sounds coral reefs make to find their way back to the reef where they will live out the rest of their lives. However, high levels of human-made noise sometimes prevent baby clownfish from hearing the popping and snapping of reefs, and they never find their way back, according to the article.

The authors also found that some species of whales, killer whales and porpoises will permanently evacuate areas where noise pollution levels are too high. However, these forced evacuations can lead to population decline, especially in species that have limited biogeographical ranges like the Maui dolphin. Even when marine life can escape, they don’t have anywhere to go that is free of noise pollution.

While the study’s results are worrying, the authors say that noise pollution is the easiest pollutant to control in the ocean. Reducing ships’ speed, developing quieter propellors, avoiding sensitive areas and moving shipping lanes could all help to reduce its impact. Many animals also have the ability to quickly rebound. For example, some large marine mammals immediately began repopulating areas that had been vacant for decades when pandemic-related lockdowns reduced noise pollution by just 20% last year. The authors hope their review urges policymakers to enact policy changes that address noise pollution and raise awareness of the issue.

Tom Vilsack’s USDA Secretary Nomination Passes Committee, Moves to Full Senate


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Nicole Welle | February 4, 2021

The Senate agriculture committee approved former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s nomination as U.S. agriculture secretary Tuesday and sent it on to the full Senate for consideration.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are expected to join Democratic Senators in confirming Vilsack’s nomination. Once confirmed, Vilsack will begin his second tour as agriculture secretary, a position he previously held from 2009 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. His position under Biden will come with the responsibility of leading the department during a global pandemic that has increased the need for food assistance, and he will be tasked with urging the agriculture industry to prioritize combatting climate change as Biden’s nominee, according to a Des Moines Register article.

Vilsack fielded multiple questions about climate change and biofuels while the Senate agriculture committee considered his nomination. As an Iowa Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst took an interest in his views on ethanol and biofuel production. She asked if he would support their production as President Biden looks to shift the country to electric vehicles, a move she said would put farmers at risk.

Vilsack responded that it is necessary to advance the production of both electric vehicles and biofuels moving forward. He referenced a recent study showing that greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are 46% lower than from gasoline, and he reassured the committee that Americans need the biofuel industry for the foreseeable future as electric vehicle technology catches up. Vilsack added that expanding renewable energy can also benefit farmers. Iowa farmers and landowners receive about $69 million annually from energy companies that lease their land for wind turbines, and those opportunities could expand as demand for electric vehicles increases.

John Kerry Says Current Goals Under the Paris Climate Agreement Are Insufficient to Limit Earth’s Temperature


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Nicole Welle | February 1, 2021

John Kerry, special presidential envoy for climate, said Sunday that the goals outlined under the Paris Climate Accord will not be enough to limit the Earth’s rising temperatures.

Kerry said that the goal of reaching a 1.5°C limitation on global warming is appropriate, but the promises countries have made to reach that goal are insufficient to achieve it. However, he added that there is still time to take more aggressive action to fight climate change if governments are willing to do so. Kerry has expressed personal approval of implementing a carbon tax to help combat the climate crisis, and President Joe Biden is likely to consider that move after saying that he would support it during the 2020 presidential campaign, according to a CNN article.

President Biden recently announced that the U.S. will rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and has set a goal for the country to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Climate experts have said that this aggressive goal is achievable. However, while Biden has already signed multiple executive orders aimed at combatting climate change, he may face pushback from congress as he pursues further climate legislation.

Biden will also have to incorporate climate change into his administration’s foreign policy if he hopes to address the issue on a global scale. That would mean introducing it into trade policies, foreign aid programs and bilateral discussions, a shift that would become Kerry’s responsibility as the new envoy for climate change, according to a New York Times article.

Gov. Reynolds Calls for a $2 Million Increase in Aid for Biofuels


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Nicole Welle | January 28, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Tuesday that her state budget calls for a $2 million increase in funding for the biofuels industry, and she hopes to work with the Biden Administration to help the industry further recover from setbacks caused by the pandemic.

Gov. Reynolds spoke at the virtual Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, an annual event that brings together government officials, industry professionals and activists from across the Midwest to discuss the future of biofuels. She said that her $2 million addition to the $3 million renewable fuel infrastructure program would help to convert gas pumps to accommodate higher blends of ethanol. The program would also receive an additional $5 million from a change in fuel retailer tax credits under Reynolds’ plan, according to an Iowa Capitol Dispatch article.

The funds would add to the combined $19 million in CARES Act federal relief aid that the state used to back retail outlets and keep ethanol refineries open last year. Reynolds and several other summit speakers said that they hope the Biden administration will bring new attention to biofuels as it moves to address climate change. Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have also joined Reynolds in fighting the EPA’s exemptions that allow small refineries to avoid required biofuels blending, and Reynolds hopes the new EPA administrator will discontinue the exemptions this year.

President Biden has made reducing carbon emissions one of his top priorities. Summit speaker Emily Skor, CEO of biofuels trade organization Growth Energy, said that growing the biofuels industry will accelerate the country’s transition to the zero-emissions future that Biden has advocated for. She added that biofuels have accounted for 75% of California’s carbon emissions reductions over the past ten years, and they will greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels over time.

Activists Call on the Biden Administration to Focus on Environmental Racism


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Nicole Welle | January 25, 2021

Environmental justice activists are celebrating President Joe Biden’s executive orders aimed at dismantling the Trump administration’s numerous rollbacks, and they hope he will continue to prioritize environmental justice throughout his term.

The National Black Environmental Justice Network and activists like Catherine Flowers applauded Biden’s decision to nominate Michael Regan to lead the EPA after being urged to do so by environmentalists. They are also encouraged by his willingness to talk about environmental justice and push for diversity in his administration. Biden nominated Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary, and she will be the first Native American to hold that position. He also signed an executive order blocking construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a move that Indigenous leaders have long advocated for, according to a Washington Post article.

A 2017 study revealed that more than one million Black Americans suffer from higher risks of cancer because they live within a half-mile of natural gas facilities. People of color are also more likely to live in regions that suffer from extreme heat, and minority communities are more likely to be centered in areas with high levels of pollution. These issues have been historically overlooked by the federal government.

Activists hope that the Biden administration will continue to focus on environmental racism as it implements future policy changes. The environmental justice movement has gained a lot of traction in recent years, and its influence has extended beyond state and federal governments. The Washington Post reported that many environmental groups are “facing a moment of racial reckoning” and have chosen to address their historical ties to racism and white supremacy. The Sierra Club, for example, issued a public letter denouncing its founder, John Muir, who was known to make racist comments against African Americans and Native Americans. Pedro Cruz, the director of healthy communities at the Sierra Club, hopes to push other big environmental organizations to better address environmental racism as well.

President Biden Signs Orders to Address the Climate Crisis on His First Day in Office


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Nicole Welle | January 21, 2021

President Joseph R. Biden Jr. followed through on his promise to begin reversing Donald Trump’s environmental rollbacks on his first day in office yesterday by singing multiple executive orders and recommitting the United States to the Paris climate agreement.

In his inaugural address, Biden stressed the importance of rebuilding alliances and trust with other countries, and he hopes that rejoining the Paris agreement will help to move the country closer to that goal. Biden also used his first day to sign executive orders to halt construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, reverse the Trump administration’s rollbacks to vehicle emissions standards, place a temporary moratorium on oil leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and re-establish a working group tasked with evaluating the social cost of greenhouse gases, according to a New York Times article.

Biden has placed tackling climate issues at the top of his list of priorities along with combating racial inequality, improving the country’s pandemic response and restoring the economy. Environmentalists are celebrating the president’s urgency in addressing these issues, but analysts and Biden himself have stressed that his executive orders alone will not be enough to adequately address the climate crisis. Biden set a goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and congress will need to pass new environmental legislation soon to make reaching that goal possible. However, aggressive climate policies aimed at cutting the country’s emissions could face opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats in congress.

Biden’s executive orders reversing some of the Trump administration’s harmful environmental rollbacks will set the country on a positive path towards addressing the harmful effects of climate change. However, it could take years to undo the rest of Trump’s actions and replace his rollbacks with new environmental regulations. Some Republicans and powerful business groups will likely oppose the process, so any future legislation will likely require some level of bipartisan support.