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By Jeff Deyette
Despite the Trump administration's ongoing attempts to prop up coal and undermine renewables—at FERC, EPA and through tariffs and the budget process—2018 should instead be remembered for the surge in momentum toward a clean energy economy. Here are nine storylines that caught my attention this past year and help illustrate the unstoppable advancement of renewable energy and other modern grid technologies.
The blast sent thick, dark smoke across the city and prompted the evacuation of thousands of residents 10 miles downwind of the refinery, 2 miles to the north, and 3 miles east and west. All Superior schools closed Friday due to the fire.
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By Steve Horn
The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) has sued Wisconsin State Superintendent Tony Evers for what it alleges was a state education agency's violation of an anti-regulatory law—long pushed by the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers—known as the REINS Act.
Wisconsin's version of REINS, or Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny, is a piece of legislation heavily lobbied and advocated in favor of for over half a decade by Americans for Prosperity, a policy and electioneering advocacy front group founded and funded by the Koch Family Foundations and Koch Industries.
By Steve Horn
A bill with the potential to hobble government agencies' ability to propose regulations, known as the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act, has passed in both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker's office has told DeSmog he intends to sign it into law.
Wisconsin's Republican-controlled government may be moving to control state-produced scientific research and tamp down emphasis on climate, according to a new report.
The Wisconsin State Journal reports that Gov. Scott Walker's budget proposal contains an item that would dissolve the science services bureau within the Department of Natural Resources and transfer the scientists to other programs.
Madison, Wisconsin and Abita Springs, Louisiana are transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy following respective city council votes on Tuesday.
Whoever is managing Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources website must be wearing out the delete key. The word "climate" has been quietly stripped from the department's webpage dedicated to explaining the state's response to climate change, Raw Story reported.
How is mining related to fracking?
Well, the process of hydraulic fracturing forces fluid into the rock at extremely high pressure. This pries open natural pre-existing cracks (fractures) in the bedrock, and also causes new cracks (induced fractures) to form. This network of enhanced and induced fractures is what allows gas and oil to flow out of the rock and into the well. To keep these fractures from snapping shut when the fracking operation is completed and the pressure is eased, you need to prop them open with something. That's why fracking fluid—a highly engineered fluid that is mostly water by volume, but can contain dozens of different chemicals—always includes a "proppant." The drilling industry has developed manufactured proppants, but often the proppant of choice is a clean, consistent, well-rounded, tough, fine-grained sand. A typical fracking operation in the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, for example, can use 4 million pounds or more of sand.
Where is all the sand coming from? As you might expect, Texas is one place where sand-mining is booming. But surprisingly, most of this sand comes from a place more famously associated with beer and brauts: Wisconsin. The rapid proliferation of sand-mining operations is getting a lot of attention there and raising concerns about public health and safety, property values, quality of life and environmental impacts.
Responding to these concerns, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) just published an interactive map showing the locations of all the facilities, active and inactive, involved in the mining and processing of sand in that state. Their map doesn't have imagery, so you can't actually "see" any of these mining operations. But when we asked, the DNR promptly gave us the facilities data (updated as of May 1, 2014), so we could make our own map using Google Maps Engine:
Voila! Here is our map of the Wisconsin frac-sand operations. We decided to only include "active" facilities on this map. Now you can explore and zoom in on any facility, and see the latest high-resolution imagery available through Google (July 2011 in the example shown below).
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The slogan on Wisconsin’s license plate—“America’s Dairyland”—celebrates the state’s number one agricultural activity and iconic status as a milk and cheese producer. What it doesn’t reveal is how dramatically the dairy industry in Wisconsin and in other parts of the U.S. has been changing, or the environmental concerns those changes pose.
While milk carton imagery pictures bucolic, small farms, more than 50 percent of U.S. milk is now produced by just three percent of the country’s dairies—those with more than 1,000 cows, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The very largest U.S. dairies now have 15,000 or more cows.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
With this increased concentration of milking cows comes a corresponding concentration of manure production. And what happens to this manure is at the heart of the pollution issues surrounding the dairy industry.
In Wisconsin, several dairy operations are now facing opposition to plans to expand their herds. Porous karst soils in the parts of Wisconsin where a significant portion of dairy expansion is occurring present some unique environmental issues. Run-off from dairy farms and other agricultural activities has seeped into aquifers and elevated levels of nitrogen, in some instances to unsafe concentrations; in one recent case, the Wisconsin Department of Justice levied a $65,000 fine against a dairy operation for contaminating groundwater.
Neighbors of Kinnard Farms dairy, located in the Kewaunee County town of Lincoln—an area of karst soils—are now in court challenging the state’s approval of a permit that would allow the dairy to expand its herd from 4,000 to more than 6,000 milking cows. About 50 percent of the town’s private wells currently have water that exceeds bacteria or nitrate safety standards. Residents opposing the State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) permit contend that it lacks sufficient information about how the dairy will manage the tens of millions of gallons of liquid manure its cows will produce.
U.S. farm consolidation is nothing new, but recent changes in the dairy industry are transforming the business in ways that are increasingly worrisome to regulators, residents and environmental groups. Wisconsin embodies this consolidation trend. DNR figures show the number of Wisconsin dairy farms with more than 500 cows grew by about 150 percent in the past decade. At the same time, the overall number of dairy farms dropped by about one-third, just as they have nationwide. The number of U.S. dairy operations with 2,000 or more cows has grown faster than those of any other size as milk production has increased about 20 percent.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a 2,000-cow dairy generates more than 240,000 pounds of manure daily or nearly 90 million pounds a year. The USDA estimates that the manure from 200 milking cows produces as much nitrogen as sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people.
This year and last, Wisconsin has fined several dairy operations for manure spills and manure runoff. According to an analysis by the Milwaukie Journal Sentinel, in 2013 a record number of manure spills—more than 1 million gallons worth—were recorded in Wisconsin. The newspaper reported that from 2007 to 2013, the state experienced an average of 15 manure spills annually from dairy farms. Roughly one-third of those spills came from large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO).
“Wisconsin,” says Clean Wisconsin staff attorney Elizabeth Wheeler, “has a nitrate problem.”
Wisconsin is hardly alone in grappling with this problem. Similar pollution issues—primarily from spills related to manure storage—have been cropping up across the country. Some recent cases include:
- In February, in Michigan’s Allegan County, a stormwater system failure at a dairy with a 1-million-gallon manure lagoon spilled manure into nearby waterways, creating a visible plume five miles long.
- In Yakima, WA, the Community Association for Restoration of the Environment and the Center for Food Safety allege in an ongoing lawsuit now in federal court that manure spreading by five large dairies has caused nitrate and other contamination of groundwater and violates the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The plaintiffs contend that the way the manure is being applied is the equivalent of dumping solid waste, an activity covered by RCRA that has not previously been applied to manure spreading. The dairies filed a motion this month to dismiss the charges.
- In Canton, MN, a wall on an above-ground manure storage tank broke last April, spilling roughly 1 million gallons of manure.
In one of the larger cases of manure pollution in recent years, an estimated 15 million gallons of manure, water, and other matter spilled in 2010 into a slough that drains into the Snohomish River in Washington state, when a berm on a dairy farm’s manure lagoon failed.
Erin Fitzgerald, senior vice president for sustainability at the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, a trade group, says a dairy’s size does not determine how well its environmental impacts are managed. William Matthews, Oregon Department of Agriculture CAFO program manager, concurs. “There are stellar operators of all sizes,” he says.
Fitzgerald’s organization stresses the need for nutrient and water quality management plans tailored for each operation, and says dairy is “one of the most regulated and inspected industries in agriculture.” She also touts the industry’s voluntary commitment to “best practices” and improving its environmental footprint, including its 2008 commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent.
Milking cows, explains the EPA, produce more manure than beef cattle and the Holsteins that dominate the U.S. dairy industry produce almost twice as much manure as Jerseys. Cows that give more milk per cow also produce more manure and per-cow milk production has almost doubled since the 1970s.
Historically, dairies dealt with manure by applying it to fields as fertilizer, as many do today. But as dairy herds have grown, a single farm often has more manure than it can use at any one time. Excess is typically stored in lagoons. “When it comes to the environmental impacts of concentrated dairy operations, it all comes down to manure management,” says Kendra Kimbirauskas, board director of Friends of Family Farmers.
Questions about manure management have prompted opposition to a number of Wisconsin dairy operations’ plans for large or expanded herds. One of these farms is Burr Oak Heifers, located in Wisconsin’s Central Sands region, an area known for its porous souls. Burr Oak Heifers is seeking a Wisconsin DNR permit to house 3,100 cows, which are expected to produce an estimated 3.32 million gallons of liquid manure and 45,900 tons of solid manure annually. In 2013, the farm, operating under a different business name, was fined $65,000 by the state for contaminating groundwater, including private well water. The permit now up for approval would grant the farm an exception to Wisconsin’s groundwater nitrate concentration limit of 10 parts per million (ppm) and permit its nitrate discharge at 28 ppm.
Clean Wisconsin’s Wheeler calls the proposed nitrate discharge exemption “unprecedented.” The DNR explains that the exemption is based on background levels of nitrate present in groundwater coming onto the site from other sources, and that the permit will require groundwater monitoring and a “nutrient management plan” designed to control manure storage and how and when manure is spread on fields. The goal of such plans include preventing application of more nutrients than a farm’s soil can absorb and making sure it’s applied when it won’t easily run off, as in winter when the ground is frozen.
Wheeler notes that dairies have typically spread manure on their own fields to fertilize forage and other crops or contracted with other farms to do so. On small farms, the ratio of cows to pasture land generally allows for a sustainable nitrogen balance. But the majority of U.S. dairy herds are confined to barns throughout their entire lives and shuttle between stalls and milking parlors in enclosed corrals and corridors and eat silage and grain grown elsewhere. “We’ve kind of taken Mother Nature out of the picture,” says John Haarsma, manager of Rickreall Dairy, an Oregon operation with 3,500 cows.
In excess, manure’s nutrients—largely nitrogen and phosphorus—can create problems. Too much in surface water can create algae blooms that result in hypoxic or oxygen-deprived dead zones. According to the EPA, excess nutrients from agriculture, including chemical fertilizers and dairy manure, are a major source of water pollution across the U.S.
In Wisconsin, explains DNR hydrogeologist Bill Phelps, about 10 percent of all private wells exceed the state’s nitrate water quality standard. In areas of high agricultural activity where fertilizer use is high, this percentage rises to about 30 percent, said Phelps.
Manure also contains pathogens that may include E.coli and other fecal coliforms. In addition, manure often contains pharmaceuticals—antibacterials and hormones—given to many dairy cows to fight disease and promote growth. Some of Kewaunee County’s wells have tested positively for estrogenic, endocrine disrupting compounds. The source has not been pinpointed, but numerous studies suggest that CAFOs, through their use of pesticides and hormones, are a source of some estrogenic compounds that enter U.S. drinking water.
In New York, now the country’s third-largest milk producing state, dairy expansion has also become an environmental issue. An ongoing lawsuit is challenging a 2013 regulation change that would increase the size of dairies allowed to operate without a nutrient management plan from 199 to 299 cows. Environmental advocates say the New York Department of Environmental Conservation failed to consider environmental impacts. “It was made for economic reasons,” to support the state’s booming Greek yogurt industry, says Rivekeeper staff attorney Michael Dulong.
Lack of measures to prevent catastrophic manure spills is among the reasons Environmental Advocates of New York policy director Katherine Nadeau gives for her organization’s opposition to this regulation change. She cites a 2005 incident in which 3 million gallons of manure spilled from a New York dairy into a nearby river, killing thousands of fish.
One day this winter, I visited one of the dwindling number of smaller U.S. dairies—Double J Jerseys, a 200-cow dairy operation in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. As I arrived cows munched clover in the barnyard, near the Bansens’ front door. Jon Bansen, a third-generation dairy farmer who produces milk for the Organic Valley co-op, said that the ratio of cows to pasture on smaller farms leads to a sustainable nitrogen balance. The steady rise of large-scale dairy operations, he said, has been “fueled by cheap fuel and cheap feed,” adding, “more is not always better."
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Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack announced more than seven million dollars in funding to support research on the profitability of small and medium-sized family farms, including their potential role in building local and regional systems. This announcement came amidst a flurry of other USDA news and program announcements in support of small farmers.
Oklahoma State University will evaluate the role of small and mid-size farms and their impact in local and regional food systems. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
These grants were awarded through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—USDA’s intramural grant-making agency related to agricultural research, education and extension. The small and medium-sized family farm subprogram within AFRI was added over a decade ago following a campaign by National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) backed by a variety of members of Congress.
AFRI is USDA’s largest competitive research grants program, with an annual budget of $274 million in Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 and $316 million for FY14. And while the awards announced this week are a small portion of AFRI’s total program funding levels, the research funded by these grants will nonetheless have significant impact on our understanding of how small and medium-sized farms can remain economically viable amidst the changes in our current agricultural landscape.
For 2013, AFRI’s Small and Medium-Sized Farm program focuses on research, education and extension projects that develop new ideas on how to increase the viability and competitiveness of small and medium-sized dairy, poultry, livestock, crop and commodity operations. This includes developing strategies to increase market access; developing efficient local and regional food systems; and assessing the impacts of changes in input costs, markets and credit on farm entry, transition and the economic viability of small farms.
In total, 10 research grants were awarded for FY13, including several grants that focus on how small and mid-scale farms can contribute to local and regional food systems and increase profitability through more environmentally sustainable production systems. Some projects funded in these areas include:
Michigan State University’s Center for Regional Food Systems (an NSAC member) will lead a project focusing on the development of profitable Michigan-based meat and livestock value chains supplying local and regional markets. This research will expand the Center’s Livestock Work Group, as will another research project funded on the production and supply side strategies for a local, Michigan grass-finished beef production system. Another MSU grant will examine business networks for food hubs in Michigan and Missouri and is tied to the Center’s Michigan Food Hub Network.
In Idaho, researchers at the University of Idaho will investigate ways to overcome constraints in serving local and regional markets in the Intermountain West, given its vast geography and often large distances between producers and consumers. Research will focus on identifying strategies for aggregation, storage, processing and distribution for small and medium-sized farmers to access local and regional vegetable and livestock markets.
Researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign will support research, education and outreach for designing and implementing more sustainable agroecosystems in the Upper Sangamon River Watershed (a typical region of the Midwest primarily dominated by corn and soybeans) by focusing on local food and biomass production for small farmers in the region.
Oklahoma State University will evaluate the role of small and mid-size farms and their impact in local and regional food systems. Specifically, this project will assess the economic development benefits that can be derived from more localized food systems.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin will work with small and mid-sized diversified vegetable farms in Wisconsin who are selling into multiple local and regional food markets in order to develop strategies to help them identify better balances between diversification and specialization in the crops grown on their farms.
In Vermont, researchers at the University of Vermont will assist decision-making by rural farm families to increase the sustainability and competitiveness of small and medium-sized farms, to strengthen the local economy with sustainable food production through the adoption of innovative and environmentally sustainable farming practices.
Kentucky State University researchers and extension agents will work with small, limited resources, socially disadvantaged, beginner and women farmers through workshops, meetings, one-on-one education and Extension Agent training in order to increase the efficiency and utilization of these farmers across the state.
Applications for the next round of funding for FY 2014 were due earlier this week, and awards are not expected to be announced until later this year.
To see a list of complete projects for 2013, click here.
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The same law that contributed to George Zimmerman walking free out of a Florida courtroom last weekend after taking the life of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was primarily written by the same super lobbying group behind legislation protecting natural gas companies from disclosing chemicals used in fracking.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, is a unique kind of lobbying front group responsible for pushing legislation designed to enhance the bottom line of their corporate funders. Corporations like Koch Industries, ExxonMobil and Duke Energy, along with industry trade associations and large corporate foundations provide more than 98 percent of ALEC’s funding, whose members, which includes elected officials and corporations, write and pass laws that will benefit those corporations.
Via the laws ALEC pushes through state legislatures, the lobbying group impacts Americans nationwide from voting right laws to environmental regulations (or lack thereof) to guns like Stand Your Ground. We’ve collected the most significant ALEC laws that could be coming to a state legislature near you, if they aren’t there already.
This act prevents states from requiring their energy companies to increase electricity production from renewable energy sources, killing a key government incentives for clean energy projects. ALEC falsely claims that any renewable energy mandate sacrifices economic growth and American competitiveness, a dead horse they have continued to beat for decades.
Because of the economic benefits of renewable energy standards in states like North Carolina and Kansas and in spite of support from ALEC’s other Koch-funded friends in the State Policy Network, ALEC’s most heated attacks on Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) were shot down by Democrats and Republicans alike. Quieter ALEC-supported attempts to repeal or weaken RPS laws also failed in Ohio, Minnesota, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine and Oregon—not a good start for ALEC’s top energy-related priority this year.
ALEC is trying to use state resolutions to add pressure to the federal government to approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. In fact, ALEC took its member legislators on a Big Oil-funded trip to Alberta, Canada, to promote tar sands, courtesy of lobbyists from TransCanada, Shell, Devon Energy and other oil and gas interests. ALEC’s conferences have featured seminars on the controversial pipeline, featuring speakers from oil companies and the Canadian government alike. The Center for Media and Democracy, which runs ALECexposed.org, has filed an ethics complaint in Nebraska for a legislator’s failure to disclose the trip and its sponsors. Keep in mind that ALEC is a tax-exempt organization, and their lobbying doesn’t count as lobbying to the IRS.
While ALEC has its own model resolution, its state legislator members introduced resolutions straight out of a TransCanada press release, coordinating across state borders to get an apparent jump in support for Keystone XL in Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota and Mississippi all at once.
5. Voter ID Act
These laws prohibit about 11 percent of citizens from voting by requiring a government-issued ID to vote at the polls.
This 11 percent overwhelmingly consists of elderly people, low-income and minority voters and students. Thirty-three states now have voter id laws and four states now have strict photo id requirements in effect. With the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act, we can expect this number to increase with ALEC's full support.
In short, this bill was ALEC’s way of making private prison companies rich by rounding up brown people without documentation and tossing them in jail. Although most of this law was struck down in Arizona, the “papers please” provision survives requiring law enforcement to check a person’s status if they are stopped, detained or arrested. State legislators and prison and bail industry lobbyists met at an ALEC meeting to write the law which originally stated that law enforcement had to check a person’s status only after “contact.” The Arizona legislature changed narrowed the law to the current language.
The title of this bill is a lie–ALEC’s flagship fracking bill prevents oil and gas companies from having to disclose the chemicals in frack fluids that qualify as “trade secrets.” Who took the idea to ALEC? ExxonMobil. Bloomberg reports that the ALEC bill has been introduced in at least eight states, although there appear to be more. Exxon’s bill became Ohio law with ALEC’s help, and a particularly controversial fracking law sponsorship by ALEC legislators passed in North Carolina last year without anyone reporting ALEC’s fingerprints. DeSmogBlog has documented attempts in Florida, Illinois and several other states.
ALEC previously drafted a state resolution that puts the regulating authority into the hands of state agencies, which are woefully understaffed, underfunded and ineffective at regulating the powerful gas and oil industry, creating a one-two punch that leaves fracked communities in the dark on chemical disclosure and at the mercy of insufficient and often captured regulatory agencies for protection from fracking pollution.
This act serves to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating the coal industry. Specifically, the act prevents the EPA from overruling state permits for coal mining and producing dirty coal products (like liquid coal for fuel) if all the coal operations are conducted within the borders of a single state. This act relies on the “Commerce Clause” claiming that the federal government can only regulate commerce that goes beyond state lines, flying in the face of settled Supreme Court interpretation of the “dormant” Commerce Clause. The first version of this bill was passed in West Virginia in 2011, a state with 273 operating coal mines as of 2011.
Considering the recent national tragedy of the Trayvon Martin ruling and the violence “Stand Your Ground” releases, this law should be repealed immediately in the states it’s active. In strong conjunction with the National Rifle Association (NRA), ALEC has managed to push versions of this law in over two dozen states. It allows any killer to claim immunity if they felt a reasonable fear of bodily harm. The Florida version of this law passed in 2005 and was written by a NRA lobbyist.
ALEC is behind loads of more dangerous laws or proposed resolutions that must be exposed, blocked or repealed if active. Please let us know other significant ones we missed in the comments below.
Visit EcoWatch’s ENERGY page for more related news on this topic.