Biofuel Waivers For Oil Refineries Could Be Removed After EPA Files Motion


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Thomas Robinson | May 4th, 2021

The EPA has filed a motion to remove biofuel waivers granted to the Sinclair Oil Corp. over questions on whether the waivers were allowed under previous court rulings.

Sinclair Oil Corp. received three biofuel waivers for the years 2018 and 2019 shortly before the Trump administration left office which exempted their oil production from federal biofuel requirements. These waivers have been a contentious issue after a 10th circuit court ruling in 2020 that argued some of the recently granted waivers had been inappropriately issued by the EPA. That ruling declared that these biofuel waivers could only be applied as continuous extensions to waivers granted in 2010, not as stand alone waivers, which would greatly limit the number of oil refineries that would qualify.

Two oil refining companies challenged the court’s ruling, however, a U.S. federal court threw out the challenge just last month. Both companies had previously received waivers that would not have been issued under the new court order, and had petitioned for a rehearing over the decision. While biofuel blending is good for farmers, the requirement that billions of gallons of ethanol must be included in gasoline costs is very expensive for the oil industry.

Iowa benefits greatly from biofuel requirements, since the state is the number one producer of ethanol in the country, with a yearly total of approximately 4.5 billion gallons of ethanol, or around 27% of U.S. ethanol production.  Federal blending standards were introduced under the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard which spurred agricultural growth in Iowa and a surge in the price of corn that brought high profits for farmers.

SCOTUS Hears Biofuels Case, Could Impact Iowa


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | April 30, 2021 

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a case that could exempt small refineries from the Renewable Fuel Standards Program on Tuesday.

The nine justices heard oral arguments in the Hollyfrontier Cheyenne Refining LLC v. Renewable Fuels Association case that questions if small refineries can request exemptions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standards that were created to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the country. The case was submitted for a later decision that will likely come in a few months.

Attorney General of Iowa Tom Miller submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court alongside Nebraska, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota, and Virginia officials. The 29-page brief asks the highest court to side with the Renewable Fuels Association and deny exemptions for small refineries if exemptions are not in place continuously.

Miller and Attorney General of Nebraska Doug Peterson argue in the brief that the EPAs “recent trend of freely granting small-refinery exemptions has undermined” the Renewable Fuel Standard’s promises of environmental benefits and energy independence.

In the case, the Hollyfrontier Cheyenne Refining LLC argued that they face detrimental financial impacts when forced to buy ethanol and biodiesel at Congress’s demanded levels. Miller and his colleagues argue that the EPA’s willingness to grant exemptions has harmed the Iowa farming and biofuels industry.

In January 2020, a 10 Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case and sided with the Renewable Fuels Association, a decision the EPA supported. After hearing oral arguments on April 27th, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to present a decision in July 2021.

ISU Poll Suggests Few Farmers Agree With Scientists That Climate Change is Mostly Caused By Humans


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Thomas Robinson | April 27th, 2021

In a 2020 poll conducted at Iowa State University (ISU), only a small percentage of respondents agreed with a statement saying that climate change is caused mostly by human actions.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll surveys what issues farmers in Iowa and the Midwest find important.  Of all respondents, only 18% agreed with the statement that “climate change is occurring, and it is caused mostly by human activities.” In comparison, 40% of respondents agreed with the statement that “Climate change is occurring, and it is caused more or less equally by natural changes in the environment and human activities” which is an increase from 36% in 2013.  While there appears to be a difference between farmer’s opinions and the scientific consensus that climate change is mostly caused by human activity, the increase in those who think that humans are potentially influencing the climate is promising for changes to public perception.

Participants also agreed more that extreme weather events will become more frequent, and that they are concerned about the ways climate change may influence their farms.  Particularly after severe storm events, like last August’s derecho, and after prolonged periods of drought that have affected much of Iowa, an increased concern about severe storms or the effects of climate change on farms is unsurprising.

Climate change is expected to have a negative effect on agriculture because of reduced rainfall totals, and the increased frequency of weather extremes (colder cold weather, and warmer warm weather). Farms and farmers will be able to adapt to climate change, but there is more that can be done, whether by planting cover crops to prevent soil erosion, or by planting crops that will help fix carbon in our soils.

Biden Begins Earth Day Climate Summit with World Leaders


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Elizabeth Miglin | April 22, 2021

President Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate begins today, on Earth Day, and will conclude on Friday. The summit will be attended by 40 world leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, alongside business leaders. The summit intends to rally public and private sector finance to reach net-zero emissions, according to the New York Times

To begin the summit, Biden announced goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels by 2030 and net-zero by 2050. Although specific plans are undisclosed, the administration is focusing on establishing union jobs in the climate industry and U.S. economic competitiveness in a government-wide approach. The administration hopes to encourage world leaders to adopt similar ambitious policies. 

The summit comes as climate scientists warn ambitious proactive action is necessary in order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Indian Prime Minister Naraendra Modi, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa all noted the need to better coordinate equitable efforts with developing countries in their opening speeches.

The Leaders Summit on Climate is one of several world leader meetings held in anticipation of the 26th session of the United Nations’ Climate Conference of the Parties (COP26), scheduled for November. 

Major Iowa City public transportation changes expected


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Elizabeth Miglin | April 8, 2021

Just as news was announced that Amtrack plans to expand its train service to Iowa City, it was decided that the Hawkeye Express will be shutting down. 

After 15 years of providing Coralville residents with transportation to Kinnick Stadium, the Iowa Northern Railway Company announced plans on Wednesday to end the Hawkeye Express. Although the service has not been operational in 2020 due to the pandemic, in 2019, the Hawkeye Express served an average of 3,700 fans, reported The Daily Iowan

“There is not a good time to close the book on this type of experience, but this decision made sense to both parties. We are grateful for all the fans who made the train part of their gameday, truly” said Josh Sabin, the Director of Administration for the Iowa Northern Railway. 

Alternatively, Amtrak announced plans to connect Iowa City to the Quad-Cities in a new long-range route. The announcement comes as President Biden released the American Jobs Plan which includes $80 billion in funding for rail transportation if passed by Congress. 

Iowa business leaders and planners have encouraged increased rail transportation for years however plans had been put on pause due to a lack of funding. These concerns over a lack of funding persist as the Iowa Department of Transportation’s freight and passenger policy coordinator, Amanda Martin, stated “the Iowa DOT has completed the planning portion of the effort, but as of right now there are no dedicated funds for construction and implementation of the service” reports the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

If the plan is fully funded, the Iowa City to Quad-Cities service could replace 1.4 million vehicle trips, 324,700 bus rides and 40,900 plane trips a year according to a 2013 Iowa DOT study

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.”

Idle Nuclear Plant in Eastern Iowa Will Become a Solar Farm


Image shows a row of solar panels in a field
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Elizabeth Miglin | April 1, 2021

NextEra Energy Resources of Florida plans to convert the idle Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, Linn County into a new solar farm. Previously, the 615-MW nuclear power plant powered 600,000 homes and the new solar farm is expected to surpass that with a capacity of 690-MW.

The solar farm will span 3,500 acres around the energy center and will include 60-megawatts (MW) of AC-coupled batteries for power storage. NextEra plans to invest $700 million over 30 years into the project resulting in $41.6 million in tax revenue and 300 construction jobs. The company hires as many workers from the local area as possible for these projects. 

The Duane Arnold nuclear power plant began operating 45 years ago and was expected to be decommissioned at the end of October 2020, however, by 2019 it was clear the plant no longer fit Iowa’s energy needs. 

NextEra has the largest renewable energy production portfolio in the United States. The company operates solar projects in 27 states and Canada with around 2,600 MW of universal and small-scale solar operating assets. This will be NextEra’s first solar project in Iowa. 

The project is expected to begin construction in winter 2022 and be operational by the end of 2023. 

Iowa Business Interests Face Off Over Proposed Ethanol Mandate


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Thomas Robinson | February 16th, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a new ethanol fuel mandate which would increase the sale of renewable fuels at Iowa gas stations and shift existing tax credits to support higher percentage renewable fuels.

The proposed rule, House Study Bill 185, would mandate that all gasoline sold in Iowa must include 10% ethanol and that all diesel fuel must include 5-11% biodiesel depending on the time of year.  Gas stations would also be allowed only one non-renewable pump, and, would also be required to install new equipment that could handle higher percentages of biofuels.  The potential equipment upgrade has pitted fuel business interests against the governor as the required upgrades could potentially cost up to $1 billion dollars.

Fuel interests in Iowa, like FUELIowa and the Iowa Motor Truck Association, warn that the proposal may increase consumer fuel costs and drive truckers to not purchase fuel in Iowa.  On the other side, biofuel interests, such as the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, favor the proposal as it is projected to increase biofuel grants by around $7 million per year.  Competing interests between these two groups over a vital Iowa industry suggests that there will be heated discussions when subcommittee hearings for the bill begin on Wednesday.

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.

Iowa’s Drought Is Likely to Stretch into Planting Season


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Thomas Robinson | January 19th, 2021

Iowa is currently experiencing drought conditions in the western portions of the state that climate officials say could last into the spring planting season.

In a recent meeting with regional climate and natural resources officials, Dennis Todey, the director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, emphasized that Iowa is entering the new year with dry soil and that it is unlikely soil conditions will change quickly.  Since more rainfall is needed to address Iowa’s dry soil there is an increased chance Iowa will continue to be dry into the spring.  2020 was the 36th driest year out of 149 years on the record, leaving around 61% of the state at some level of drought.

Iowa’s drought conditions can likely be attributed to La Niña conditions which usually indicate a greater chance for colder temperatures and average or slightly above average precipitation. La Niña weather patterns develop as colder sea surface temperatures occur in the Pacific around the equator as part of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  These ocean conditions can result in warmer winter temperatures for the southeast U.S, and colder winter temperatures for the north west.