U.S. House Panel Divided Over Proposed Regulation of Abandoned Gas and Oil Wells


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Nicole Welle | April 19, 2021

Members of the Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee agreed to cap abandoned gas and oil wells, but the two parties disagreed on the federal government’s role in regulating the project.

The U.S. House subcommittee met last week to discuss a bill that would authorize $8 billion over 10 years to clean up gas and oil wells abandoned by defunct companies. The bill falls under President Biden’s new infrastructure and jobs plan, and it aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs for oil and gas workers displaced by the transition to renewable energy, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

While subcommittee members agreed on the need to clean up the wells, Republican leaders took issue with a section of the bill that would require states to increase regulations to receive federal funding. The provision would increase bond rates for gas and oil companies to help cover cleanup costs if they were to go bankrupt.

Rep. Pete Stauber of Minnesota, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, called the provision “another attempt at destroying the industry.” However, conservationists believe it would protect wells from being abandoned in the future and reduce the number of wells emitting harmful pollutants.

“Even after society transitions away from fossil fuels, abandoned and orphan wells may be emitting methane and impacting our water, air and ecosystem for many years, decades and possibly centuries,” said Mary Kang, an assistant professor of civil engineering at McGill University.

Biden Adds Climate Spending to $2 Trillion Infrastructure Package


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Nicole Welle | April 5, 2021

President Joe Biden’s new $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs package includes a multi-billion dollar plan to combat the climate crisis and promote a nature-based infrastructure.

The plan includes $16 billion for capping abandoned oil and gas wells and $10 billion for the Civilian Climate Corps, a program that would create employment opportunities through conservation and restoration projects. To help pay for this, the proposal would raise the corporate tax rate to 28% and close tax breaks for oil and gas development, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

There are currently over 2.3 million abandoned gas and oil wells in the United States, and they are leaking large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. By putting money towards capping them, the federal government plans to create jobs for workers displaced by the transition to renewable energy. This plan to create climate-friendly jobs shares similarities with the New Deal that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt put into place in the 1930s to improve infrastructure and the economy.

While the plan has received a lot of support from climate scientists and activists, many conservative lawmakers have opposed the tax increase. House Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Sam Graves said in a statement that it would kill jobs and hinder economic recovery after the pandemic. However, the plan’s supporters assure that the tax hike would not negatively impact working Americans.

“This $2.3 trillion is spread over eight years, and there’s a plan to try to pay for it,” Jerry Schnoor, co-director for the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, said on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River. “It has to do with taxing the income of the richest people, making more than $400,000 per year.”

Des Moines Water Works Detects Toxic PFAS in Drinking Water


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Nicole Welle | March 29, 2021

Des Moines Water Works recently detected low levels of PFOS, a toxic chemical found in multiple human-made products, in finished drinking water in Des Moines.

PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) is part of a large list of compounds called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), which are commonly found in products like popcorn bags, pizza boxes and clothing. These chemicals repel water and oil, and they are commonly called “forever chemicals” since they do not break down and stay in the environment for a long time. PFAS levels detected in Des Moines drinking water were at 6.5 parts per trillion, which is well below the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt. However, even low levels are a concern and have triggered further investigation, according to a Des Moines Water Works announcement.

PFAS chemicals are known to pose threats to human health and the environment. The EPA has connected them to cancer, low birth weight, immune system problems and thyroid issues. While the levels detected in Des Moines’ drinking water are low, a lot more testing is required before specialists can fully understand how PFAS are affecting Iowa’s water supply.

Des Moines Water Works has reached out to the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Attorney General and Iowa’s Congressional delegation to ask for help in resolving the issue. The Iowa DNR plans to test 50 locations they consider highly vulnerable to pollution for PFAS contamination. The federal Department of Defense is also conducting tests to follow up on high PFAS contamination previously detected in groundwater near the Des Moines and Sioux City airports.

Climate Change Could Lead to Six-Month Summers by the Year 2100


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Nicole Welle | March 22, 2021

A new study found that summers in the Northern Hemisphere could last up to six months by the end of the 21st century if global warming continues at its current pace.

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, found that climate change is causing summers to increase in length over time. Researchers analyzed daily climate data from 1952 to 2011 to find the start and end of each season, and they discovered that global warming caused summers to increase from 78 to 95 days over the 60-year period. They then used the data to create a model to predict the length of future seasons, according to an NBC News article.

Climate scientists found that if global warming continues at the current rate, summers will last for six months by 2100, while winters will only last for two. This shift would negatively impact a wide range of areas, including human health, the environment and agricultural production. Scott Sheridan, a climate scientist at Kent State University, warned that shifting seasons would impact many plants’ and animals’ life cycles.

“If seasons start changing, everything isn’t going to change perfectly in sync,” Sheridan said in a statement to NBC. “If we take an example of flowers coming out of the ground, those flowers could come out but bees aren’t there to pollinate yet or they’re already past their peak.”

Plants coming out of the ground earlier than normal could have serious implications for farmers who rely on a regular planting season. In fact, a “false spring” in March of 2014 caused peach and cherry crops to spring from the ground early, only to be destroyed when temperatures plummeted again in April. Events like this will become more common as climate change continues to alter Earth’s seasons, and they may force us to rethink our methods of food production in the near future.

U.S. Ships More Plastic Waste Overseas Despite New Global Restrictions


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Nicole Welle | March 15, 2021

Over 180 countries agreed last year to place strict limits on plastic waste exportation to poor countries, but new trade data from January shows that plastic exports from the United States have increased.

Participating nations met at Geneva in 2019 to add plastic scrap to the Basel Convention, a treaty that places restrictions on shipping hazardous waste. The new addition makes it illegal for most nations to accept plastic scrap shipments unless they are in their purest form. However, the U.S. has continued to send large shipments overseas to poor countries in the months since the addition took effect in January, according to a New York Times article.

The lack of compliance likely stems back to the United States’ refusal to ratify the global ban. The U.S. is one of the few countries that did not ratify the convention, but it is still subject to its laws since participating nations are banned from trading with non-participating nations. So far, this has not stopped American companies from exporting more scrap plastic than ever. January reports showed that the U.S. exported 48 million tons that month, a 3 million-ton increase from the previous January.

The convention’s main goal was to reduce the amount of plastic wealthier countries, like the U.S., were shipping over to poorer countries. The waste often ends up in landfills, oceans or other natural landscapes instead of being recycled, and poorer nations often can’t safely handle the amount of waste coming in from the U.S. Of the 25 million tons of plastic waste the U.S. sent to poorer countries in January, much of it went to Malaysia, one of the convention’s participating countries. Advocates worry that continued lack of compliance on this level will cause more problems in the future. Even if receiving countries refuse to accept American plastic at their ports, American companies could refuse to take it back and find a way to send it elsewhere.

The U.S. government would need to pass legislation to ratify the convention, and it will remain limited in its ability to stop the exports until that happens.

Mississippi River Cities Join New Initiative to Track and Reduce Plastic Pollution


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Nicole Welle | March 8, 2021

Cities along the Mississippi River will take part in a new project to help identify where plastic pollution entering the Gulf of Mexico is coming from.

The Mississippi River serves as a drainage system for 40% of the United States and sends huge amounts of plastic pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. To combat the problem, the new project will allow “citizen scientists” to record sources of litter they observe along the river on a mobile app. Officials will then enter the data onto a virtual map that policymakers can use to develop ordinances and plans to reduce plastic pollution, according to an Associated Press article.

Most plastic pollution enters the river through municipal storm drains and tributary streams. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic flow into oceans every year, and the debris often kills or severely injures fish and other marine life. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer with the University of Georgia, hopes the project will spark conversation between mayors, stakeholders and community members.

“Mayors can use the data to bring stakeholders together to have conversations about what kinds of interventions make sense for their towns,” Jambeck said. “And community members can use the data to bring people together to discuss the issue and discuss what kind of actions they want to take.”

The new project follows an agreement made in 2018 by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative to reduce plastic pollution in the Mississippi River valley. Baton Rouge, Louisiana; St. Louis, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota are leading the effort, and they are currently working on community education and outreach efforts. Webinars will be available this month to community members who wish to use the mobile Debris Tracker to help.

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.