Energy Matters

Snow-covered Driveway

Friday I ran errands before the winter storm hit. Errands means filling the automobile fuel tank with gasoline, buying a lottery ticket, and driving south on Highway One to the grocery store in the county seat to purchase organic celery, frozen lima beans and sundry other items not available locally.

The storm hit between noon and 1 p.m. depositing a fluffy, four-inch covering of snow on everything.

It wasn’t a blizzard as one could easily see into the distance through the small, falling snowflakes. The wind wasn’t blizzard-bad. It gave me a chance to try out the electric snow blower I bought at the home, farm and auto supply store on Dec. 12., a concession to aging.

Our rural electric cooperative buys electricity from CIPCO (Central Iowa Power Cooperative). Their electricity generation fuel mix is coal, nuclear, hydro, landfill gas, wind, solar, natural gas, and oil energy resources, according to their website. They haven’t updated the breakdown by fuel source since 2016 which showed 38.3 percent coal, 33.7 percent nuclear, 27.0 percent wind, solar, hydro and landfill gas, and 0.5 percent natural gas. I could say we have a nuclear powered snow blower… or not depending on how I feel on any given day. Yesterday I was thankful I didn’t have to shovel as the work went quickly.

We need energy to fuel a modern lifestyle and there is not a lot of control outside our personal habits. We use electric appliances and there is no reason to change back to natural gas, the most recent alternative. Our home heating is a forced air, natural gas central furnace supplemented by an electric blanket in one bedroom and a space heater in my writing room. We have no fireplace and burning wood isn’t a sustainable option. We use an on-demand, natural gas water heater which has served us well. I learned about on-demand water heaters while visiting a friend in Vienna, Austria in 1974.

We got rid of incandescent light bulbs long ago and do our best to turn off lights when not using a space. I occasionally forget the light is on in my writing room and leave it on overnight. We consolidate trips to major cities in our vehicles, combining work days with shopping and other errands. We spent an average of $3.65 per day for electricity and natural gas in 2019 and $2.55 per day on gasoline to operate my car. When we upgrade my 1997 Subaru there will be an opportunity to change to electric or get a more fuel efficient vehicle. Same for the other car in the house, a 2002 Subaru. As we age I can see owning only one automobile.

I still use gasoline to power yard equipment including our mowers and trimmer. I tried a Black and Decker electric trimmer but it wouldn’t hold a charge long enough to finish the whole yard, even with two batteries. When it broke after years of service I got a Stihl trimmer with my discount at the home, farm and auto supply store. I didn’t use a gallon of gasoline for the trimmer in 2019. I don’t like mowing the lawn unless it is to collect grass clippings to use as mulch. In 2019 I filled up my 5-gallon gas can twice: once at the beginning of the season and once in July. It’s still half-full. I expect to purchase a gasoline-powered rototiller for the garden. Like with the snow blower it is a concession to aging.

A snow day is a chance to bunker in and get caught up on desk work. I wish I could report I had. Instead I read, watched snow fall, and wondered about our collective future in an environment where the weather event was unremarkable, but its late arrival this winter is an unmistakable sign about our warming climate. I need to get to work today, as do we all.


Protect Our Planet, Protect Ourselves – 24 Hours of Reality

It’s a fact: Fossil fuels are driving a climate crisis and threatening our health. On Dec. 3 – 4, Climate Reality and former Vice President Al Gore will be joined by an all-star line-up of artists, thought leaders, and scientists for 24 Hours of Reality: Protect Our Planet, Protect Ourselves. Tune in and learn how we can make a healthy future a reality:


An Energy Revolution

Image of Earth 7-6-15 from DSCOVR (Deep Space Climate Observatory)

A recent article at Nuclear News reminds us the world is on the cusp of an energy revolution.

“The cost of renewables like solar and cell batteries for electric vehicles are making the carbon-based economy obsolete, with the turning point only a few years away,” author Christina MacPherson wrote.

The age of centralized, command-and-control, extraction-resource-based energy sources (oil, gas, coal and nuclear) will not end because we run out of petroleum, natural gas, coal, or uranium,” Stanford University professor Tony Seba recently said. “It will end because these energy sources, the business models they employ, and the products that sustain them will be disrupted by superior technologies, product architectures and business models. Compelling new technologies such as solar, wind, electric vehicles, and autonomous (self-driving) cars will disrupt and sweep away the energy industry as we know it.

Seba sees oil consumption collapsing after 2020.

I wrote about coal in 2009:

When we consider the use of coal in Iowa, there are many of us who remember the coal trucks plying the streets and alleys of our childhood, dropping loads of the black stuff down chutes leading to a basement coal bin and then to our gravity furnaces. Through the winter, people shoveled coal into burning embers to heat their homes. Coal ash was shoveled out and in the spring, it was tilled it into gardens and spread on fields. Coal ash was also sent to dumps. On the farm, coal was purchased with seeds, feed and grain. It was part of a background to life that did not consider the potential harm to human health we now know it represents.

Those born in the 1950s and before have living memory of how natural gas replaced coal for home heating. The conversion was driven by much lower natural gas cost compared to coal. Similarly, lower costs of renewables will drive the move away from fossil fuels. We are almost at that point, as MacPherson indicated, and the business community is recognizing the reality by investing in renewables.

A recent article by Eva Zlotnicka for Morgan Stanley reiterates this point.

Economics and improving technologies, not regulation, are the driving forces behind many of the sustainability trends in global markets today. Our energy commodities team’s fundamental analysis of power-generation economics shows that longer-term coal can’t compete with natural gas or renewables, even on an unsubsidized basis. In a recent report, the team cut its 2017 coal-burn forecast by  around 4%, and now sees only a modest year-over-year improvement, with most of those gains lost by 2018, due to ongoing competition from natural gas and renewables.

The 45th president made much of reviving the coal industry during his election campaign. The trouble for him is the market is heading a direction that not even he and his fossil fuel friends can stop. He can roll back all the regulations he likes and the market will continue to drive the switch to renewable energy.

Many of us were disappointed when President Trump announced his decision to exit the Paris Climate Agreement. It was all hat no cattle.

There is almost no disagreement in the scientific community that fossil fuel use contributes significantly to planetary warming and related climate change. However, that’s not the point. What gave rise to the Industrial Revolution continues to work, and as renewable energy costs decline and become cheaper than the cost of fossil fuels and nuclear, bankers, manufacturers, and service industries will convert because it makes business sense to do so.

Add the public health, environmental, business and economic value of renewables together and a scenario where energy companies may start divesting themselves of coal and oil operations emerges.

How will the U.S. exit the Paris agreement? 45 didn’t say. Will his administration follow the four-year exit process outlined in the agreement, or will he remove the United States from the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), exiting in about a year? If the drivers of transformation in our energy system are economic, what whit of difference does his decision make?

The agreement posed no financial risk to the United States, according to Morgan Stanley. It seems doubtful other nations will follow the United States out of the agreement, although some may. The pursuit of the goals in the Paris Agreement by remaining countries, combined with the efforts of U.S. states and cities acting on their own, offer the best chance to reduce carbon pollution in the atmosphere.

Nonetheless, an energy revolution is going on and at this point little politicians do seems able to stop it.


What’s After Paris?

Gore ParisLast week, Al Gore reflected on the ten years since he founded The Climate Reality Project. Following is an excerpt from an email he sent to the Climate Reality Leaders he trained.

Ten years ago, I trained the first group of Climate Reality Leaders in my barn in Carthage, Tenn. I asked them to join me in spreading the word about the urgency of the climate crisis, and I was impressed by the commitment and passion they demonstrated. I’m even more impressed now as the work they’ve done in their own communities and beyond has helped to spark a global movement for action on climate change.

In the decade since that first group came together, I’ve trained more than 10,000 Climate Reality Leaders who are just as committed to making the world a better place for future generations. The Climate Reality Leadership Corps is active in more than 130 countries around the world and represents people from all backgrounds and walks of life. I’ve enjoyed working alongside teachers, scientists, community leaders, business owners, students, and so many others who all share a dedication to promoting solutions to the climate crisis.

Ten years of concerted action by the Climate Reality Leadership Corps came together last year when 195 countries committed to working together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions planet-wide as part of the Paris Agreement. Now, it’s time for us to continue our work together and push countries to strengthen and implement their commitments so we can make the promise of Paris a reality.

Even as we look to the future, I want to make sure we take a moment to appreciate the last 10 years and all of the amazing work that you’ve done to help share the truth about the science and solutions of climate change with your friends, family members, colleagues, and everyone else.

I want to thank each and every one of you for what you’ve done in your own communities to bring attention to the most important issue of our time.

It is easier to play a role in the global effort to mitigate the causes of global warming and climate change when thousands of others are doing the same thing, each in their own way. That’s been my personal benefit from The Climate Reality Project.

I joined in Chicago (August 2013) and have no regrets. I learned the story behind Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, and the science behind it. Gore presented a broad mix of information about what is happening in our environment because of global warming and how it impacts communities.

Since then, I’ve presented my story to individuals and groups in the area and seek opportunities to do more. I served as a mentor at the Cedar Rapids training last year and have written about the need to act on climate change in my blogs, and in letters to the editor of our local newspaper. When I worked as a freelance correspondent, climate change informed my world-view and was a context in which I framed stories whether they were about farming or forestry, the school board or city council, or about new business openings or individual achievements.

Talking about global warming and climate change has become part of my life.

If the Paris agreement was the culmination of ten years of work, as Gore said it was, the work is not finished.

With a sharp focus on identifying the impact on our climate of CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels, Gore and many allies made the point about seeking alternatives. As solar and wind-generated electricity reach price parity with fossil fuels (and they are doing so faster than anyone imagined) the coal industry is in disarray and nuclear power is waning.

There is a cloud on the hopeful horizon of renewable energy. Buoyed by exploration and discovery of oil and shale gas reserves, companies like British Petroleum, once green washing us with their interest in renewables, divested their interests in solar and wind energy this decade to focus on oil and gas.

I predict declining prices of solar power will help it dominate the future of municipal and regional electricity generation. Already companies like Central Iowa Power Company (CIPCO) are changing their tune. Not so long ago they were promoting nuclear power at their annual shareholder’s meeting. Today, they are building solar arrays.

If there is a blind spot in Gore’s laser focus on burning fossil fuels it is the impact of greenhouse gas emissions from other sources. He acknowledges them, but they have not taken the spotlight. There’s work to be done regarding manufacturing, agriculture, mining and other aspects of our industrialized global economy.

Every time I talk to an Iowa farmer Gore’s work can be heard in the conversation. Not so much from me, but from farmers. They’ll tell you the hydrology cycle seems different even if they dislike Al Gore and don’t acknowledge it is related to global warming. They don’t have to and I don’t need ratification of my own beliefs.

Like so many others I am focused on the work of mitigating the causes of climate change. You may not know it, but it is baked into everything I do.

What have you done lately to create a better environment for all of us to enjoy?

~ Written for Blog for Iowa


Electricity and Our Future

Annual MeetingIt would be great to just plug into a socket, use electricity and be done with it. There’s more to it than that.

We take lighting after sundown for granted, as we do preserving food in the ice box and proper functioning of the myriad of appliances in a modern home.

Since before the Christian Era, humans have attempted to understand how our universe works. I was reminded of this while doing research on tonight’s supermoon lunar eclipse, the mechanics of which were worked out by the ancients around 200 B.C.E., according to Robert Mutel at the University of Iowa.

Since the industrial revolution began, humans have increased development of community solutions to improve lives. The expansion of electrical usage is one of the great things to emerge, transforming lives where whale oil, then kerosene were the primary fuels used to illuminate darkness.

People continue to pay limited attention to electricity. Friday the Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative annual meeting was held at the Teamsters hall in Cedar Rapids.

The report from staff was that while the number of new connections was down in 2014, crews found plenty of maintenance work to do. The organization is financially sound.

The event turns out a lot of elderly couples who use the occasion to get out of the house, socialize with friends and neighbors, and take advantage of the free lunch, door prize drawing and gifts. Among this year’s gifts was a portable mobile phone charger, something even octogenarians might use.

LED - Incandescent Light Bulb Demonstration
LED – Incandescent Light Bulb Demonstration

A demonstration comparing electricity usage of incandescent and LED light bulbs was set up outside. When the demonstrator threw a switch, changing which bulb was turned on, the change in speed of the rotating gear on the electrical meter indicating usage was obvious. The message was buy energy efficient light bulbs and when you do, look at the number of lumens rather than wattage when picking one.

While attendees ate lunch from their laps on folding chairs — choice of cheeseburger or chicken sandwich with sides of baked beans and potato salad — a slide show enumerated financial incentives for home owners and businesses to take advantage of to reduce electricity usage when installing new appliances or constructing a new home or business.

Would that life were so simple when it comes to electricity.

The REC has this statement about how their electricity is generated on its current website.

Linn County Rural Electric Cooperative is committed to providing electricity that is reliable, cost effective and sustainable. One hundred percent of our electric power needs are provided by Central Iowa Power Cooperative (CIPCO), a generation and transmission cooperative.

CIPCO meets our energy needs with a diverse fuel mix of coal, nuclear, hydro, landfill gas, wind, natural gas and oil energy resources. In 2013, approximately 95 percent of the power CIPCO provided to its members was generated right here in Iowa; and over 60 percent of its electricity is generated from carbon free resources that minimize the impact to our natural environment.

Specific generating capacity is listed on the CIPCO website.

CIPCO Map of Generating Sources 9-27-15
CIPCO Map of Generating Sources 9-27-15

There is some political posturing here, in that CIPCO draws electricity from the NextEra Duane Arnold Energy Center, Iowa’s lone nuclear reactor. One assumes that is part of the “carbon free resources” mentioned, even though tremendous carbon-based resources are used in preparation for the moment heat is produced by nuclear chain reaction to boil water.

There’s probably more obfuscation here if one took the time for analysis. It’s not worth the time. Scientific evidence is clear that the ceaseless emission of CO2 pollution by electricity generation stations using fossil fuels is a primary cause of global warming. If people are distracted and assuaged by door prizes and flowery language, they won’t be for long. Global warming is impacting our climate in a pronounced, negative (to humans) way.

The Environmental Protection Agency recognized CO2 as a pollutant and this summer rolled out new regulations in the Clean Power Plan. As with all things governmental, there is a political aspect to the plan. Some states are resisting implementation.

Each state is required to locally implement the Clean Power Plan. In many ways the Clean Power Plan is an opportunity for democratization of how energy is produced and used, and we should take advantage of it, said historian and political economist Gar Alperovitz. He called for “an all-out mobilization with potentially far-reaching consequences,” as states adopt a plan.

In Iowa, Governor Branstad has been resistant to the Clean Power Plan, saying only that he would wait and see the final regulations before commenting. The future is well known as Iowa has consistently said the state will adopt no stricter regulations than those required by the federal government. One expects the state to take minimal steps in compliance, and only after hearing from the American Legislative Exchange Council, and waiting out initial litigation regarding the new rules.

The trouble is transition to renewable, carbon-free sources of electricity can’t occur fast enough to undo the CO2 pollution already emitted into the atmosphere. Urgency at our annual REC meeting only took the form of opening water bottles and cutlery packs with reduced physical capacity.

A lot of good work is going on regarding development of new electricity sources that directly harness the wind and sun. Our future is to accelerate development and implementation of carbon-free, nuclear free electricity. That means a lot more than using the phrase on the REC’s website or in a blog post.

People don’t react well to non-imminent threats. Our future is raising awareness of the climate crisis without causing people to withdraw from society.

While looking up a link for this post, I saw a Bobby Jindal web ad on my article. Jindal referred to the negativity in our world and said, “It’s time to turn to God.” Maybe. For those of us already oriented that direction, there is plenty of work to be done on earth to improve the human condition. Mitigating the causes of global warming is an important part of it.


Going Solar in Iowa

WHY-WHY-NOT-MELBOURNE2-4_0(Editor’s Note: This is a revised and updated post about solar power).

Climate Reality Leadership Corps founder and former vice president Al Gore gave his slide show, an updated version of the one used in the film An Inconvenient Truth, in Cedar Rapids on May 5.

It’s the third time I’ve seen him do so in person. There were differences in emphasis, but the big message of day one came from the panel on renewables and policy.

“Go solar,” said Warren McKenna, president of Farmers Electric Cooperative, Kalona.

In significant ways, these two words sum up what’s needed to meet world energy needs, replace fossil fuels, and move civilization toward sustainability.

In an hour, sunlight shining on Earth provides enough energy to meet our collective needs for a year. Whether we realize it or not, fossil fuels represent ancient sunlight stored for millennia in the ground. Which is more accessible?

According to multiple speakers at the conference, most of proven reserves of fossil fuels cannot be burned if we seek to retain Earth’s livability.

What makes solar an attractive solution to the climate crisis is the cost of installation is plummeting. At the point solar electricity generation reaches grid parity it will be an easy financial argument to make that fossil fuels should stay in the ground in favor of the less expensive alternative.

It’s not just me saying this.

The Way Humans Get Electricity is About To Change Forever is an article that appeared on Bloomberg Business last week. Author Tom Randall outlines shifts in electricity generation that will transform markets in the next 25 years. Randall predicts investments in solar will surge into the trillions of dollars, including distributed generation in the form of rooftop solar panels.

Companies such as Berkshire Hathaway Energy (BHE) already like solar, wind and other renewable energy generating capacity.

BHE accounts for six percent of U.S. wind electricity generating capacity and seven percent of solar according to Warren Buffet’s 2014 letter to shareholders.

“When BHE completes certain renewables projects that are underway, the company’s renewables portfolio will have cost $15 billion,” Buffet wrote. “In addition, we have conventional projects in the works that will also cost many billions. We relish making such commitments as long as they promise reasonable returns–and, on that front, we put a large amount of trust in future regulation.”

Solar is not without it’s problems. Natural resources must be exploited to make photo-voltaic panels, and the issue of conflict minerals continuously gets pushed aside. There are manufacturing, labor and transportation issues with solar. Problems notwithstanding, the argument for solar boils down to do we want a future, or not?

What we know is dumping 110 million tons of CO2 pollution into the atmosphere every day is not sustainable, and already we are seeing the impact of global warming and related climate change damage the lives of tens of millions of people.

There are no simple answers to solving the climate crisis. As industry demonstrates the viability of renewable energy, the only thing holding us back is a lack of political will to take unavoidable steps to mitigate the causes of global warming.

The economic argument provided by declining solar electricity generating costs will be a potent weapon in the political fight.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa


Interview with Ed Fallon

Bakken-Pipeline-Proposed-RouteBlog for Iowa caught up with Ed Fallon in Iowa City at a March 11 fundraiser for his Iowa Pipeline Walk along the proposed route of the Dakota Access oil pipeline from the Bakken shale formation through Iowa to Illinois.

Fallon presented a slide show of his experiences on last year’s Great March for Climate Action across the U.S., and answered questions during an event attended by about 35 supporters.

Discussions ranged over a variety of related topics. Two seemed most important: eminent domain and an environmental study of the Dakota Access pipeline.

Rep. Bobby Kaufmann (R-Wilton) is leading a bipartisan effort to restrict use of eminent domain by private companies like Dakota Access in Iowa.

“I intend to introduce legislation in the Government Oversight Committee,” Kaufmann said in an email to constituents. “My committee is funnel proof and next week I will introduce an Eminent Domain Omnibus bill that will attempt to address the numerous eminent domain abuses going on throughout the state.”

When asked about the legislation, Fallon acknowledged the several bills filed regarding eminent domain had not yet been finalized into one.

“My biggest hope is it defines public use so clearly that you can’t come in and build a pipeline across Iowa and use eminent domain to build that,” Fallon said. “Because it’s not oil that’s being used here, it’s not being produced here, it’s being refined in Texas and shipped for the most part overseas.”

A bipartisan group of legislators sent a letter to the Iowa Utilities Board asking the regulatory body commission an environmental impact study of the proposed Dakota Access oil pipeline.

According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the letter raised eight concerns:

1. Safety risks and hazards associated with the product(s) to be transported through the pipeline;

2. Potential damage to water, land, soil, water, air and wildlife/wildlife habitat during construction;

3. Threats to the environment, farmland, wildlife and public health as a result of spills or explosions;

4. Spill prevention and clean up provisions;

5. Liability for damages to both public and private property and sufficiency of resources to cover such liability;

6. Adequacy of inspection/monitoring/enforcement mechanisms and resources;

7. Responsibility for planning, training, and equipping for emergency response;

8. Indirect impacts of the oil extraction process facilitated by the pipeline that may affect public health and safety as well as environmental security.

“If studying the environmental impact is something we do before we decide to move forward on this, then that has value,” Fallon said. “But if it’s something we do after the fact, after the damage is done, after the decision is made, then it’s kind of a moot point.”

During the question and answer session, Jack Knight of the Allamakee County Protectors indicated that delaying the IUB approval process through an environmental study was a valuable tactic in preventing the oil pipeline from being built.

Opponents of the Dakota Access oil pipeline have a bigger issue and Fallon touched upon that during our interview.

“Based on what the entire scientific community is telling us, that oil needs to remain in the ground,” he said. “Really this conversation about the pipeline is a sidebar, but a really important one.”

For more information about Fallon’s work, Blog for Iowa recommends, “Hitting the Pavement,” in the March 16 issue of the Newton Daily News, or follow him on

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Environment Living in Society

Train Wrecks and an Ag Summit

Galena Train Derailment
Galena Train Derailment

As punctuation to my article Why Bakken Oil is Dirty, last Thursday’s BNSF oil train derailment in a remote area near Galena, Ill. tells the story better than I could.

It is the third Bakken oil train derailment in the last three weeks according to National Public Radio.

Carrying light sweet crude to market from the Bakken field, the train derailed on tracks inaccessible to first responders, rupturing at least five tank cars of 21 that left the tracks, igniting a pyre that could be seen for miles. No one was injured and officials are investigating the causes. Because of the location, accessible only via a bicycle path, fire fighters decided to let the fire burn itself out. Remediation of the oil spill will be difficult because of the location, but no oil has made its way to the Mississippi River yet. As I write, the fire is still burning.

BNSF was quick to report the rail cars were a newer, safer model voluntarily designed to be less prone to rupture. Critics say it’s not good enough. Being a level headed Iowan, I’m willing to wait until the investigation is complete before condemning anyone but ourselves and our addiction to fossil fuels.

“In the coming days, we need to look at not just the safety of the rail cars, but the safety of what is being put into those cars,” U.S. Senator Dick Durbin told NPR. “There is mounting evidence that stricter standards are needed in the handling of Bakken crude which appears to be particularly volatile. We can’t wait. The safety of our communities depends on it.”

News coverage of the accident revealed that the State of North Dakota will require oil producers to remove excess natural gas from the crude oil before shipping it by rail to help reduce volatility, according to NPR. What exactly that means, and whether it will make a difference is uncertain. It confirms what I said in my last article about the volatile nature of the Bakken crude oil being shipped, and the role the refining process plays in its volatility.

Photo Credit: Quad City Times
Photo Credit: Quad City Times

While the Galena fire burned, Bruce Rastetter’s Des Moines Ag Summit proceeded on schedule, serving up Republican nostrums the way cattle in a CAFO are fed. All twittering eyes were on the summit, leaving a void among Democrats. Democrats don’t have anything similar to this, so it was a great way for Republicans to build party support. Disagreement and agreement with looney ideas is part of Republican party-building, and they are getting better at it with each election cycle.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, who demonstrated at the Ag Summit and held their own event, are neither Democrats nor lefties, despite repeated corporate media attempts to characterize them that way. In my experience, they are issue-oriented individuals who band together to make points about life in Iowa, using visible, direct action tactics in their advocacy. The reason they receive media characterization at all is Democrats cede the space to Republicans on these presidential candidate cattle calls. There is nothing else for political reporters and bloggers to cover.

Rastetter contributed over $60,000 to the Branstad-Reynolds re-election, and $1.49 million to various candidates over the last 16 years according to Who is the Democratic equivalent? Maybe Fred Hubbell, who gave $60,000 to the Hatch-Vernon campaign.

Hubbell may be well known to political insiders but most Democrats only know vaguely that he is an attorney, if they even know that. He would be no useful substitute to the hated, loved, and very public Rastetter.

Democrats had the Harkin Steak Fry as a comparable event, although last year’s was to have been the last. Maybe it will return, but that’s up to Harkin, not us.

For the first time in a long while, I didn’t hear that our county party was having an off-year caucus last week until after it had begun. I arrived home from work just as it was finishing. If a couple of people hadn’t been covering it on twitter, it would have passed unseen. That’s a train wreck of a different kind.

As we hope for spring, society begins to make more sense. For now, winter’s cold remains, and there’s plenty to keep us busy as we sustain our lives on the Iowa prairie.


Are Property Rights a Climate Action Tool?

WHY-WHY-NOT-MELBOURNE2-4_0For many, protecting property rights is high on the list of priorities. It’s the American way, shouldn’t it be so? A related and perhaps better question is whether climate advocates should use eminent domain as a tool to advocate against energy related projects.

Answers are elusive.

When the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Kelo v. City of New London that the general benefits a community enjoyed from economic growth qualified private redevelopment plans as a permissible public use under the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment, property rights advocates were up in arms. There is a role for eminent domain when governments initiate the process, but private developers should have no such rights, they said.

Kelo may mean that when U.S. infrastructure projects are developed by foreign corporations (TransCanada Corporation’s Keystone XL Pipeline) or by U.S. corporations (Energy Transfer Partner’s Dakota Access Pipeline or Clean Line Energy Partners’ Rock Island Clean Line), foreign or private domestic entities have the right to initiate condemnation process and take easements and other property to build their projects.

In a March 2 article in the Des Moines Register, William Petroski reported, “a majority of Iowans support plans for a crude oil pipeline in Iowa and a wind electricity transmission line project, but they overwhelmingly oppose the use of eminent domain for both projects.”

Politicians have argued that these projects create jobs, decidedly temporary ones, and in today’s economy people should accept such jobs, implying they should also cede eminent domain rights to U.S. or foreign corporations. This couldn’t have been clearer than the Keystone XL Pipeline bill passed in the U.S. Congress, vetoed by President Obama.

Kelo is not without emerging challenges.

On Feb. 18, the Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Clarke County Reservoir Commission v. Edwin D. and Deloris A. Robins Revocable Trust. The case is an appeal of an April 8, 2014 lower court decision wherein “Judge Sherman W. Phipps of the Fifth Judicial District of Iowa ruled in favor of CCRC’s ongoing Squaw Creek Watershed project, confirming it is for a public use, public purpose or public improvement as defined in the Iowa Code,” according to Amy Hansen of the Osceola Sentinel-Tribune. Developers seek to make a recreational lake much larger than the size required to serve water needs for the community to enhance property values as they sell adjacent lots.

Whatever the outcome of challenges to the Kelo decision, climate advocates are damned if they do and damned if they don’t regarding use of eminent domain as a tool. The contrast between the Rock Island Clean Line and the Dakota Access Pipeline exemplifies the problem.

On Aug. 20, 2014 while on the Great March for Climate Action, David Osterberg of the Iowa Policy Project said Iowa needed a way to get wind-generated electricity out of western Iowa to markets. His view is not unique among climate action advocates. The Rock Island Clean Line offers one such solution, but some property owners along the proposed route won’t allow an easement voluntarily. Osterberg said the Rock Island Clean Line wasn’t perfect, but it did offer a solution to shipping electricity to markets. The implication is that eminent domain may have to be used by a Texas company to build the project, although Osterberg did not say that specifically.

Use of eminent domain to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline is favored by climate action advocates. Because Bakken Oil is dirty, advocates seek to obstruct access to market through Iowa. Eminent domain has made unlikely partners in the Iowa legislature, where Senator Rob Hogg, who has given more than 100 presentations for The Climate Reality Project founded by Al Gore and is author of America’s Climate Century, began partnering with Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, a crop and livestock farmer and small business operator who is also a member of the Farm Bureau and National Rifle Association, to oppose the Keystone XL Pipeline on eminent domain grounds.

As the Iowa Utilities Board evaluates the proposal for the Dakota Access pipeline, eminent domain has more traction than the argument that fossil fuels should be left in the ground because of their contribution to anthropogenic climate change. Climate action advocates favor the latter argument, but will support the former.

Property rights advocates like Kaufmann are unlikely to go both ways on the eminent domain issue.

“The Bakken (Dakota Access) Pipeline and the Rock Island Clean Line should pick out baby names and choose a honeymoon destination, because the two issues just got married,” said Kaufmann in a Jan. 31 interview with the Solon Economist. “You’ve got two different companies that want to ship two versions of energy. They’re both private Texas companies and both want to ship a product out of our state without allowing anyone in our state to tap into it.”

Use of eminent domain hinges upon “public use.” Set aside creation of a number of temporary jobs and the public use of conveyances for energy related products is elusive, especially with the Dakota Access Pipeline. In any case, corporations benefit more than people in both Iowa projects and with the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Property rights can be a tool for climate action advocates, but it has been an imperfect one at best.


Why Bakken Oil is Dirty

Bakken-Pipeline-Proposed-RoutePeople who care about hydraulic fracturing say the oil coming from the Bakken formation in North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan is dirty. It is. All oil is dirty, and my two cents is we should leave what’s there in the ground. That won’t go over well in North Dakota where discovery of the Parshall Oil Field in 2006 created an oil boom.

What makes Bakken crude oil problematic is that it contains more volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than oil shipped from wells in other regions of the country. This makes the oil more flammable, so when there is a train derailment, as there was in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013, the oil easily ignites and creates hell on Earth. (Read Adam Federman’s article in Earth Island Journal here).

Because so little public study has been conducted on Bakken crude oil and the operations that produce it, scientists don’t fully understand why the oil is so flammable. There are suspected causes.

The Bakken formation shale oil boom developed from almost nothing to more than a million barrels of crude oil daily in a short period of time. According to Federman, the infrastructure doesn’t exist in the Bakken to fraction off the VOCs as is done with other oil production facilities. The oil is shipped with the VOCs in it, making Bakken crude oil more flammable. There’s more Bakken crude oil today, it poses a real threat to public safety, and the transportation modes used are not regulated well enough for the commodity’s characteristics.

One of the frequent concerns in the Bakken is there are not enough suitable rail cars available to meet shipping needs. Lack of transportation capacity to get the oil to market is an issue. This created a business opportunity, and that’s what the Dakota Access pipeline is about.

Debate over trucks vs. rail vs. pipeline to transport Bakken crude oil is wasted time. Each mode of transportation has its own issues, and most transportation experts agree pipeline is the safest of the modes of transportation. Regardless of transportation mode, if there is a spill, first responders will be required to deal with a commodity on which they have in most cases received inadequate training. That problem could conceivably be fixed, but awareness of the issue hasn’t adequately emerged as we wait for the Iowa Utilities Board’s public healing on the Dakota Access oil pipeline.

Combine the increased flammability of Bakken crude oil with lack of proper shipping regulations and capacity, and we know why it is called dirty oil.