Here’s What Was Discussed in The First National Climate Task Force Meeting


Image of National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy
Via The White House on Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | February 18, 2021

National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy virtually convened the first National Climate Task Force meeting on Thursday, February 11th. 

21 agencies and offices were present, including Vice-President Harris who greeted Task Force members as the meeting began. The task force convened to discuss implementing Biden’s “whole-of-government” approach to address climate change, achieving environmental justice and creating union-backed jobs.

McCarthy said the administration would focus on addressing methane emissions early on and will use Biden’s executive authority to roll out climate-related orders. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and international climate envoy John Kerry have joined McCarthy in stating support for establishing a carbon tax, a move that could be achieved through executive action. 

Because this meeting was the first of its kind, task force members focused on the role of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, the National Climate Task Force Charter, early actions, and near-term priorities. The task force also announced $280 million in grant opportunities for the Energy and Transportation Department and created a new working group to address challenges like creating new affordable energy storage and developing sustainable fuel for aircraft and ships. 

The Biden administration hopes to announce aggressive new goals for reducing the United States’ global emissions on April 22

Iowa GOP Senators Move to Cut Tax Exemptions for Forest Reserves


Via Flickr

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.

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


Via Flickr

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.

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


Via Flickr

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


Via Flickr

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


Via Flickr

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.

Trump Pushes For Further Environmental Deregulation During Final Weeks in Office


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | November 19, 2020

The Trump administration is using its final weeks to push through dozens of environmental rollbacks that weaken protections for migratory birds, expand arctic drilling and increase future threats to public health.

One proposed change would restrict criminal prosecution for industries that cause the deaths of migratory birds. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 currently protects over 1,000 species of bird including hawks and other birds of prey, and it is used to recover damages in situations like the BP oil spill in 2010 that killed more than 100,00 seabirds, according to an AP article. The Trump administrations wants to ensure that companies face no criminal liability for preventable deaths such as this in the future. Officials advanced bird treaty changes to the white house two days after news organizations declared Joe Biden’s win.

Another recent proposal put forth by the Trump administration would set emission standards for dangerous particles of pollution emitted by refineries and other industrial sources. Others would allow mining and drilling on public lands around the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park in New Mexico and in Alaska.

Most of these proposed changes directly benefit gas and oil industries, and some of them could be difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to reverse once he takes office. Biden could easily reverse some with executive action, but others, like putting protected lands up for sale or lease, could pose a bigger challenge.

Most of the proposed changes will go quickly through the approval process. It is not unusual for presidents to push rule changes through at the tail end of their terms, but many environmentalists and former officials believe this environmental deregulation reflects a pro-industry agenda taken to the extreme. It could have serious negative impacts on the safety of imperiled wildlife, climate change and human health.

United States Formally Withdraws from Paris Agreement


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | November 5, 2020

The United States became the first nation to formally withdraw from the Paris agreement on Wednesday, the day after election day.

Trump announced the plan to withdraw back in June of 2017, but there are UN regulations in place that prevented the decision from taking effect until this week. Previous attempts to create a global pact for climate change failed because of internal U.S. politics, so President Obama’s negotiators worked with the UN to agree on a set of regulations that would prevent the U.S. from withdrawing too early in the case of a change in leadership. The rules stated that no country could leave the agreement until three years had passed since the date it was ratified. Once those three years had passed, countries needed to submit a 12-month notice to the UN. Because of these rules, Trump could not submit a formal notice until November of 2019, according to a BBC News article.

The Paris agreement requires participating nations to set their own targets for reducing greenhouse gases, and they must increase those goals every few years. The accord does not determine what those goals have to be, but countries are required to accurately report on their efforts. The overall goal is to keep rising average temperatures globally below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, according to a euronews article.

While Donald Trump made leaving the Paris agreement part of his election platform in 2016 and many of his supporters agree with the move, a large percentage of Americans are deeply disappointed by the decision. The U.S. currently represents about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The decision to leave the agreement has hurt the country’s reputation globally, and Many Americans believe that the U.S. should be leading the fight against climate change because it is such a large contributor.

The results of the 2020 presidential election are not yet decided, but Joe Biden vowed to rejoin the Paris agreement on his first day in office if he is elected.

“Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it,” Biden said in a Tweet on Wednesday.

Trump Signs an Executive Order Waiving Environmental Reviews for Key Construction Projects


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | June 8, 2020

The current economic “emergency” caused by COVID-19 gave President Trump the ability to sign an order on Thursday that allows federal agencies to waive environmental reviews for the approval of major construction projects.

The president used a section of federal law that allows “action with significant environmental impact” without observing the usual requirements set by laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environment Policy Act. These laws normally require agencies to analyze how decisions on construction projects could negatively impact the environment, according to a Washington Post article.

The executive order will speed up approval for the construction of highways, pipelines, mines and other federal projects. In the order, the president stated that the normal regulatory processes required by law would keep Americans out of work and hinder economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this decision could lead to increased negative environmental impacts and harm plant and animal life in construction areas.

Many conservation groups are concerned that this could also lead to further dismantling of environmental laws in the future. However, while some companies could benefit from these changes in the near future, they also may be reluctant to rely on the order out of fear of legal backlash from environmental and public interest groups. Some companies may also hesitate to use the order to push projects forward since they would likely need to show proof that they were operating in an emergency.

Permission to sell Iowa water to arid west requested, denied


Screen Shot 2020-02-05 at 2.52.56 PM
The Jordan Aquifer (formally the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer) underlies most of Iowa and much of the Midwest (via USGS).

Julia Poska | February 6, 2020

Last week, northeast Iowa’s Pattison Sand Co. requested a state permit to sell 2 billion gallons of Jordan Aquifer water annually to water-poor states in the western U.S.

The company, which primarily mines sand for fracking operations, did not identify the arid states to which it would ship water, Iowa Capital Dispatch reported. Pattison said it intended to increase withdrawals from wells it already owns and ship the water west via a company called Water Train.

The unprecedented request sparked concern among stakeholders throughout the state, including lawmakers, utilities and environmentalists. The Jordan Aquifer, pictured above, is a major source of groundwater throughout Iowa and in parts of six other Midwestern states.

Expanding agriculture, ethanol production and municipal populations have created increasing demand on the Jordan, while recharge in some areas takes thousands of years.

In northeast Iowa, where Pattison mines outside of Clayton, the aquifer sits near the surface, allowing for easy access and recharge. One state geologist told the Des Moines Register that the northeast Iowa part of the aquifer could likely provide 2 billion gallons. Another told the Capital Dispatch more study would “definitely” be needed to determine impacts elsewhere in the state.

Iowa announced Wednesday intent to reject Pattison’s request, citing “negative impact on the long-term availability of Iowa’s water resources,” the Register reported. Pattison may submit “clarifying comments” before Feb. 14.