Coal plants closing at unprecedented rate


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A coal plant spews pollutants on the Navajo reservation near Page, Arizona. (Photo Kent/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 2, 2018

Coal’s role in the U.S. energy picture is rapidly shrinking according to a report from the independent, non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists.

From 2008 to 2016, the portion of the U.S.’s energy derived from coal decreased from 51 percent to 31 percent. Of those coal units that are still up and running, about 25 percent of them plan to retire or switch to another energy source soon. While some coal units are retiring completely, many of them are switching to natural gas. Either way, the report found that the decreased coal production has provided the following environmental health benefits:

  • 80 percent less sulfur dioxide, a source of acid rain
  • 64 percent less nitrogen oxide, a key component in smog
  • 34 percent less carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas

Scientists estimate these changes have saved residents about $250 billion in public health costs related to breathing polluted air from 2008 to 2016.

The driving force behind coal’s decline is primarily economic. Natural gas is cheaper than the dirty fuel, and new research found that newly constructed wind and solar plants are more cost effective than new coal plants.

The researchers also looked at the challenges faced by economies in former coal-mining areas to learn more about how residents cope with closing plants. The results were decidedly mixed. For example, after one especially dirty plant in Chicago closed down following years of activism, area residents found that the city planned to redevelop the building into a transportation center–posing additional air quality risks. In contrast, an organization in West Virginia is working to train laid off coal-workers in construction, agriculture and solar energy jobs. As the shift to cleaner energy sources continues, the Union of Concerned Scientists call on lawmakers. They write,

“As more coal plants close, the importance of investing in these and other impacted communities will only grow. Policy makers should prioritize economic development and job transition assistance, alongside other investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

Following massive spill, Keystone XL gets go-ahead in Nebraska


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TransCanada tweeted a picture of the affected area around the recent oil spill in South Dakota. (TransCanada)
Jenna Ladd | November 22, 2017

More than 200,000 gallons of oil spilled from the Keystone Pipeline near Amherst, South Dakota late last week, yet further expansion of the pipeline’s bigger brother, Keystone XL, was approved by the state of Nebraska on Monday.

TransCanada, the company that owns both pipelines, shut down the Keystone Pipeline last Thursday morning at 6 am after detecting a drop in pressure, indicating a leak. About 5,000 barrels of oil spilled onto privately owned land roughly 200 miles north of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The company is still investigating the cause of the pipeline’s rupture.

Just three days after the oil spill, Nebraska’s Public Service Commission decided the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline’s route through Nebraska. Caving to pressure from Nebraska’s conservative legislators as well as industry and labor groups, the five-person commission agreed to allow the pipeline to cross through Nebraska. However, the pipeline must follow an alternative route. While the pipeline will enter and exit the state in the originally proposed locations, the commission will require its route to follow an existing pipeline’s path. This change will make responding to leaks more efficient according to regulators.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that 10-25 million gallons of oil spill each year. Not only do oil spills destroy habitat, kill plants and animals, and compromise agriculture, they also threaten public heath by contaminating drinking water and degrading air quality.

Thursday’s oil spill came exactly one year after Native American protesters were sprayed with water cannons in 23 degree weather as they attempted to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through North Dakota, citing oil spills as a primary concern.

 

On The Radio – Cumulative CO2 levels reach record high


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Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when fossil fuels, like coal, are combusted. (Kym Farnik/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 20, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how carbon dioxide levels soared to record highs in 2016. 

Transcript: Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rose to a record-high during 2016 according to the World Meteorological Organization.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The organization measures carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases at 51 sites around the globe. Average accumulated CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere reached 403.3 parts per million last year due to human activity and an El Niño weather event, which brought drought to much of the world’s CO2-capturing vegetation. Last year’s increase of CO2 was 50 percent higher than average year-to-year increases over the last ten years.

Scientists say that Earth has not had the same concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere since about three to five million years ago, when temperatures were two to three degrees Celsius warmer and sea levels were several dozen feet higher.

World Meteorological Organization scientists warn that greenhouse gas emissions should be cut drastically and immediately to avoid “dangerous temperature increases” by the end of the century.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Bakken pipeline seeks official approval


Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 21, 2015

The Texas-based company seeking to build an oil pipeline spanning the state of Iowa has applied for approval from the Iowa Utilities Board, according to the Des Moines Register.

Dakota Access, LLC, a division of Texas company Energy Transfer Partners, is seeking permission to build an underground pipeline that would run from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Ill., where it would then be connected to distribution systems across the country. The application, filed Tuesday, has set the stage for an ongoing battle between oil companies and Iowa farmers and environmental experts.

Among the concerns over the project is the potential for disastrous spills, like one that leaked 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana. Cities like Glendive, Mo., for which the Yellowstone is the primary water supply, have had to have fresh water hauled in on semi trailers since the accident.

In informational meetings held over the month of December, Iowa farmers spoke out against the pipeline, concerned that the project could not only cut yields but also interfere with drainage systems, as Iowans scramble to tackle the state’s growing agricultural runoff problem.

Not least among these concerns is the pipeline’s significance as a fossil fuel system at a time when Iowa is trying to transition to clean energy. The effects of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels is expected to more heavily impact Iowa’s agriculture industry over the next few decades.

Oil companies working in the Brakken oil fields are trying to find solutions to the railroad congestion problems caused by the oil surge, leading to a backlog in exports like grains, which share the rails with oil.

Iowa City to host sustainability event on the 25th


Photo by 350.org, Flickr

On September 25 Iowa City will unite for a less fossil fuel dependent lifestyle. The University of Iowa and Iowa City host the upcoming event, which consists of a day full of sustainable activities. These activities include a bike ride and march, a rally and a music festival. Continue reading