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.

Vilsack focuses on nutrition, broadband access, and racial discrimination in USDA budget request


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Elizabeth Miglin | April 15, 2021

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack announced the USDA’s goals with president Biden’s budget proposal to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday. The USDA plans to expand food insecurity and nutrition programs alongside efforts to address racial discrimination and increase rural broadband access. 

Last week, Biden revealed his 2022 budget request to Congress which included $27.8 billion for USDA, a $3.8 billion increase from last year. The budget would provide nearly $7 billion for nutritional programs including the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Additionally, the USDA plans to relaunch the “Strike Force” program which provided $23.8 billion for 380 countries with persistent poverty established under the Obama Administration, according to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch.

A notable change however, is the USDA will end the Farmers to Families Food Boxes program established by the Trump administration by May. The USDA plans to continue efforts to distribute produce and dairy products to food banks and other beneficiaries, however noting, the Farmers to Families program has shown “significant administrative costs and inadequate accounting of where boxes were delivered.” 

This budget request comes in conjunction with the American Jobs Plan and the American Rescue Plan. The former has a proposed budget of $2 trillion which will help supplement the costs of providing rural communities access to broadband, increase the manufacturing of biobased products and community level environmental protection efforts led by USDA. The American Rescue Plan has provided a 15% increase or $3.5 billion to expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by $100 per household of four.

Vilsack is the first Cabinet secretary to appear this year before a House appropriations panel. 

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.”

University of Iowa engineers receive $1 million to turn wastepaper into plastic


Folded paper
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Elizabeth Miglin | March 25, 2021

Earlier this month, University of Iowa engineers Xuan Song, Chao Wang, and H.S. Udaykumar, in partnership with Impossible Objects, Inc., received nearly $1 million from the REMADE Institute for their project to improve the speed and reduce the labor costs of remanufacturing recycled wastepaper. 

The project aims to use artificial intelligence (AI) and smart additive manufacturing (AM) technology to turn recycled paper and cardboard into high-value fiber reinforced plastic (FRP) composites. Aerospace, automotive, marine and construction industries use FRPs in most advanced engineering structures. Increasingly, FRPs have replaced heavier and more expensive infrastructure materials and systems, such as steel and concrete. 

The project is one of only 24 chosen in the latest round of funding by the REMADE Institute, a public-private partnership created by the United States Department of Energy. The institute provided a total of $43 million in research funding to support the development of new waste technologies in order to encourage a transition towards a circular economy.

Manufacturing currently makes up 22% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. Song, Wang and Udaykumar hope to address this and that their research will encourage widespread adoption of recycling wastepaper into FRP plastic. 

Proposed Changes To Tax Exemption For Forested Land Halts In Subcommittee


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Thomas Robinson | March 16th, 2021

After a Senate Ways and Means subcommittee hearing held yesterday, Senate File 352 was not advanced in the Senate which leaves the current tax exemption for Iowa’s forested land intact.

In the recently proposed bill, the current 100% property tax exemption for forested land would be reduced to 75%.  Opponents of the bill have suggested that these tax changes would harm forest reserves across the state as landowners may change how their forested land is used to offset increased property taxes.

Much of the push for the bill comes around the discussion of bad actors that abuse the tax exemption and improperly maintain their land.  The current requirements to qualify for the tax exemption are for landowners to participate in Iowa’s forest reserve program, and to maintain either 200 trees per acre, or 70 fruit trees per orchard.  While there may be some bad actors, state senator Joe Bolkcom emphasized that most private landowners in the program do a good job of maintaining Iowa’s forests.

After the derecho event last August, approximately a quarter of all trees in Iowa were lost to the storm, while in Cedar Rapids that number increases up to around 65%. Programs such as “ReLeaf” in Cedar Rapids are working to replace lost trees, however, these projects take a long time. For example, it is projected to require up to 15 years to replace Cedar Rapid’s lost trees.  Iowa’s forests provide significant recreational value for residents, and out of state visitors, which could be compromised if forested land was negatively affected. After losing so much of Iowa’s forests last summer, now is not the time to put forth a bill that could risk further deforestation in our state.

New Bill Would Give Iowa State Parks an Additional $3 Million Each Year


Image of lake in Pilot Knob State Park, Ellington, IA.
Via Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | March 4, 2021

A plan to provide $3 million towards state park improvements passed a legislative subcommittee on Monday, March 1st.

Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, introduced the bill to provide additional funding to state parks in light of deferred maintenance. The bill would create a Restore the Outdoors program to fund vertical integration projects that focus on major repairs and renovations. 

Similar to legislation from 1997, House File 647 would provide the DNR with $3 million annually from gambling taxes over a three-year period. Despite concerns over budget restrictions caused by casino closures in 2020, GOP leaders are expected to give the bill a hearing in the Natural Resources and Appropriations committee. 

“I will continue to press this issue because I think it is very important to our quality of life in Iowa,” Siegrist said

The interest to improve state parks comes after a tumultuous year. Not only did Iowa’s state parks celebrate a centennial anniversary, but there was also a record 16.6 million visitations last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the impacts of the derecho left many state parks in need of renovation.  

“I think that, especially after last year when so many people used our state parks, it is just a good thing to keep them as maintained as we can,” subcommittee member Rep. Tom Jeneary, R-Le Mars, said to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch.

All three representatives on the House Natural Resources subcommittee approved the legislation.

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.

Kim Reynolds Pauses Invest in Iowa Act Program for the Second Time


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Nicole Welle | January 11, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Thursday that she is once again pausing the Invest in Iowa Act, a proposal that would fund environmental and mental health programs, due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.

Reynolds originally shelved the proposal late last session after the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted the economy. She said that the program’s one-cent sales tax increase would be ill-advised during a time of economic uncertainty, and she still holds that view. Reynolds has said that she would rather follow up on tax cuts made in 2018 so Iowans can “keep more of their hard-earned money” and cited concerns about the pandemic’s effect on employment and the economy, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch previously reported that lawmakers from both parties have opposed the plan, so the Invest in Iowa Act is likely to stall without major revisions if Reynolds ever decides to act on it in the future. Some Republican lawmakers have discussed adjusting tax breaks to create funds for some of the work outlined in the act, but the Invest in Iowa act’s future is unclear.

Reynolds’ original Invest in Iowa proposal would have funded Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and improved the state’s mental health programs, and reductions in income and property taxes would have offset the one-cent sales tax increase. Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved the trust fund in 2010 and hoped that it would help to solve Iowa’s water quality issues caused by agricultural runoff and other pollution. However, it is in desperate need of funding as the sales tax increase required to fund it has never reached the debate floor.

The Invest in Iowa plan would have created $171 million a year for water quality, outdoor recreation, and conservation projects. It also would have allowed counties to shift mental health funding from local property taxes to the sales tax. However, Reynolds did not discuss alternative sources of funding for water quality or conservation projects when she announced that she would pause the program on Thursday, and she said that she is currently looking for alternative sustainable funding for mental health services.

Lead in School Drinking Water: Opportunities for Improving Public Health in Iowa’s Schools


With permission from Amina Grant

Thomas Robinson | December 15th, 2020

In a legislative presentation Tuesday morning, David Cwiertny, Director of CHEEC, and Dr. Michelle Scherer, a professor at the University of Iowa, presented their work on lead in Iowa’s drinking water. 

CHEEC, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, has worked with schools around the state to assess the amount of lead in drinking water through their Grants to Schools program.  The program provides $10,000 for schools to sample every drinking water outlet, and then take steps to address any potential lead or copper contamination.  On average, they’ve found it only takes $2,800 for testing and remediation suggesting that more can be done for Iowa’s schools without breaking the bank.  Cwiertny emphasized the large cost to benefit ratio seen for lead interventions, where for every $1 invested there is around a $10 benefit.  Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created concerns about school drinking water as stagnation can increase lead and copper levels in drinking water. As schools begin to operate drinking fountains again there may be an increased chance for lead and copper exposure.

Dr. Michelle Scherer discussed her research group’s efforts to test drinking water from both municipal systems, as well as private wells in Iowa.  Recent work by graduate students Amina Grant, and Danielle Land has found that some Iowans are potentially being exposed to lead in their drinking water.  Shockingly, they found that potentially 65,000 Iowans had drinking water that exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).  Dr. Scherer’s take-away message was that we need to know more about the challenge facing Iowa.  She emphasized that in home lead and copper testing needs to be more prevalent and available to properly evaluate the issue. Similarly to work being done in Illinois, Iowa needs to map lead service lines (LSLs) so that consumers can be made aware of potential exposures. Currently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that public health interventions need to happen at 5 microgram per deciliter blood lead levels in children and Dr. Scherer suggested that in the face of recent work these interventions should happen at lower blood lead levels. To better address the lead challenge facing Iowa both speakers stressed the importance of filter first legislation that could help reduce lead exposure in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead as there is no safe level of exposure without potential health risks.  In Iowa, 1 in 5 newborns have elevated blood lead levels, and there is no difference between rural and urban populations.  Traditionally, lead is thought to come from paints, air, and soils, however, it is becoming more apparent that drinking water is a prevalent source for lead exposure.  Lead in drinking water is difficult to control and regulate since most contamination comes from the distribution system and not providers.  Currently, there are many different guidelines and regulations for lead contamination. Unfortunately, Iowa is on the back end where water outlets are taken out of service only if lead levels exceed 20 ppb, which is 4 times the level accepted for bottled water (5 ppb).  Iowa needs a health based lead regulation that can be used by consumers to evaluate whether their drinking water is safe, and it isn’t unreasonable for a low level like 1 ppb to be the goal.

Number of Iowa Park Rangers Decline As Park Visits Increase


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Thomas Robinson | December 8th, 2020

In an IowaWatch review, Iowa’s parks may be at risk of declining quality as the number of Iowa park rangers and funding decreases.

Iowa’s parks will likely see around 16 million visits in 2020, an above average number of visits for the state.  The heightened number of visits comes as the number of park rangers has declined to 35 rangers from around 55 almost 20 years ago.  The decline in park rangers presents a challenge to maintain the quality of the parks, and, while the review found most parks were doing well, there is potential for future damage.

Unfortunately, the reason for ranger decline is that general funding for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been too low according to Sen. Ken Rozenboom.  In 2018, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission warned that if the general fund contribution was reduced further it may prevent the DNR from carrying out its mission.  Amid budget challenges, the DNR closed their forestry bureau which ended checks for the Big Tree program that now only functions with the help of volunteers.

Coronavirus has emphasized the importance of Iowa’s state parks as places for people to explore and safely get out of their homes.  For these parks to remain in good quality and accessible to those looking to be outside, future funding will be required to support the DNR and park rangers.