EPA leader focused on water quality, biofuels and livestock in first Iowa visit


Via North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality

Elizabeth Miglin | May 6, 2021

The new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan visited Iowa on Tuesday to discuss agriculture’s impact on environmental issues. 

Regan’s first visit to Iowa, included a tour of the Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant near Nevada, followed by a group discussion with farmers and a meeting with Gov. Kim Reynolds in Des Moines. Later in the day, Regan met with state and city officials to announce plans for a superfund site near downtown Des Moines. Notably, no discussions occurred with environmental organizations during his trip. 

The focus of Regan’s visit surrounded water quality, biofuels, and livestock production. Iowa environmental advocates have long supported regulation of nitrogen and phosphorus, two of the main farm fertilizers polluting Iowa’s lakes and streams. However, Regan spoke in favor of a nutrient reduction strategy focused on individual farmers taking steps to address this issue, according to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch


Regan’s visit comes as the issue of waivers to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard are before the U.S. Supreme Court. The waivers, which are highly objected to by farmers, allow oil refiners to not blend biofuels into oil production per the Renewable Fuel Standard, according to Iowa Environmental Focus. Although the Biden Administration does not support the reinstatement of the waivers, concerns have arisen over the administration’s push for electric vehicles and lack of support for corn and soybean-based biofuels. Speaking to these concerns, Regan emphasized the necessity for the co-existence of biofuels and electric vehicles for the foreseeable future.

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.

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


Image via Flickr

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.

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.

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.

Nuclear Energy Plant Closure Decreases Clean Energy In Iowa


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Thomas Robinson | January 5th, 2021

The Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) near Palo, IA was decommissioned in August after incurring damage from the Derecho which decreases the amount of clean energy in Iowa.

The DAEC began commercial operation in February 1975 and served Iowa for 45 years before plans to decommission the plant in October, 2020 were sped up after the cooling towers were damaged by the Derecho.  Plans for the decommission will have all nuclear fuel in dry storage by 2023, and all building structures removed by 2080 once radioactivity has decreased. 

Approximately 10% of Iowa’s electricity came from the DAEC which means alternative energy sources such as natural gas and coal will be required to cover energy demand until alternative sources such as windmills are installed.  Other states, such as Illinois, are facing similar nuclear plant closures but have previously taken steps to prolong the lifespan their of nuclear power plants. Iowa has not taken steps to promote nuclear energy as a tool to combat climate change.

Approximately 20% of all U.S. energy has been reliably provided by nuclear energy since 1990, and nuclear energy has been deemed necessary to achieve global climate goals.  Energy produced by nuclear sources is commonly equated with energy produced by fossil fuels, however, they are not the same as carbon emissions are generally ignored in these types of comparisons.   Nuclear energy can be used to aid the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, but to meet our goals current nuclear capabilities must be increased.

Controversial Aviation Greenhouse Gas Emission Rule Finalized by the EPA


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Thomas Robinson | December 29th, 2020

The EPA has finalized a new greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standard for aviation that was made public in July, the first standard for the country.

The new GHG standard works to regulate U.S aviation emissions into compliance with similar standards made by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  The new standards have not been projected to reduce emissions, and the EPA believes that any changes made by manufacturers were likely to happen regardless of the implementation of new standards.

Unfortunately, critics argue that the new rule will fail to effectively address climate change and represents a continuation of the “do-nothing” status quo.  Toxic contaminants and particulate matter are not addressed in the new rule, both of which can result in negative health outcomes for communities close to airports.  In October, the EPA was charged by 11 states to strengthen the finalized rule which has been described as “entirely insufficient.”

Approximately 2% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted by the aviation industry.  While significant advances have been made recently in alternative fuels and fuel efficiency, the U.S has observed growth in the aviation sector which will only increase GHG emissions.

Iowa Drops to #36 in National Energy Efficiency Rankings


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Nicole Welle | December 21, 2020

Iowa may be one of the nation’s leaders in renewable energy production, but the state fell short in this year’s national energy efficiency rankings, dropping 13 spots since 2019 and landing at #36. The American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), the organization that created the rankings, says that poor state legislation is to blame.

In 2018, the state passed a bill that added restrictions to state energy efficiency programs. Another bill passed in 2019 placed caps on certain energy investments, and Iowa now gives customers the option to opt out of paying for energy efficiency programs that fail to pass a cost-effectiveness test. ACEEE also noted that Iowa lacks performance incentives for utilities, has not studied buildings’ compliance with energy efficiency standards since 2011 and has not updated conservation codes since 2012, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

All of these factors have stalled progress toward reducing gas and electricity use in Iowa and explain why Iowa took the biggest drop of any state on the list this year. However, ACEEE also noted that Iowa did adopt a new energy plan in 2016 that called for modernizing the electrical grid, promoting alternative-fuel vehicles, expanding natural gas service and increasing building efficiencies. The state is still working towards the goals outlined in that plan, and it is considering adopting the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) as a baseline for building energy codes used in residential and commercial construction. It is currently working from the 2012 version of the IECC.

California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota were at the top of ACEEE’s list, and Kansas, Mississippi, and North Dakota were at the bottom. ACEEE’s rankings are based on transportation, utility and public benefits policies, state government initiatives and appliance and building efficiencies. States are given a score out of 50, and Iowa is currently below the national median score in every category, according to Iowa’s ACEEE scorecard.

In order to improve the state’s ranking on next year’s list, the Iowa state government will need to reassess recent policy changes and consider updating the state’s outdated energy efficiency standards.

Proposed Climate Resolution Triggers Debate in Des Moines City Council Meeting


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Nicole Welle | December 10, 2020

Des Moines city council members debated a proposed city resolution that would transition the city’s electric users to 100% renewable energy by 2030 earlier this week.

Councilman Josh Mandelbaum, who supports the proposal, debated with Councilman Joe Gatto over a potential conflict of interest. Gatto accused Mandelbaum of the conflict because Mandelbaum is the senior attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s Des Moines office, a non-profit organization that supports renewable energy, aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the retirement of coal plants. Gatto said he would not support any resolution Mandelbaum writes because of his ties with the organization, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

After hearing about the proposal, MidAmerican Energy warned that the move could be too bold. The company is a large, investor-owned utility and has a powerful political presence in Iowa, and council members in the meeting expressed the importance of passing a resolution that MidAmerican will agree with in. MidAmerican has retired some of its coal plants across the state and invests heavily in wind energy, but it expressed concern over the cost of Mandelbaum’s proposal, saying that monthly electric bills would more than triple for homeowners under his plan. MidAmerican suggested adding small modular nuclear power stations to help meet the plan’s emissions goals and lower costs, and it said it would continue to shift away from coal power over time rather than rushing it to avoid blackouts.

Councilwoman Linda Westergaard sided with Gatto in opposing the resolution, and she called for a more cost-effective proposal that aligns with MidAmerican’s goals. Other officials in the meeting echoed her desire for a more conservative approach while some, like Jeremy Caron, Des Moines’ sustainability program manager, expressed the need for “bold but achievable goals.” Caron said that a bold plan like Mandelbaum’s could attract workers to the city and give it a reputation as sustainable.

Mandelbaum added that his proposal would increase jobs in renewable energy and bring in federal aid since it aligns with the Biden administration’s commitment to reducing emissions. However, it is unlikely that the council will have a final proposal ready by the end of the year as planned, and discussion will likely continue into 2021.