Coal Will Not Go Quietly

  • In the fall of 2007, the state of Kansas made the unprecedented decision to deny a power company permits for a coal plant because of greenhouse gas emissions. (Photo courtesy of the Energy Information Administration)

Reducing the greenhouse gases that
cause global warming will mean less
reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal.
Almost two years ago, Kansas became
the first state ever to deny permits
for a coal plant because of greenhouse
gas emissions. Since then, there have
been lawsuits on all sides. Even the
compromise the Governor in Kansas reached
with the coal company in May is now
stalled. Devin Browne reports that
coal just will not go quietly:

Transcript

Reducing the greenhouse gases that
cause global warming will mean less
reliance on fossil fuels, such as coal.
Almost two years ago, Kansas became
the first state ever to deny permits
for a coal plant because of greenhouse
gas emissions. Since then, there have
been lawsuits on all sides. Even the
compromise the Governor in Kansas reached
with the coal company in May is now
stalled. Devin Browne reports that
coal just will not go quietly:

The Sunflower Electric Power Corporation had actually applied and been
approved for a permit to build a new coal plant in 2002. But, for whatever
reason, they let the permit expire. Seemed like no big deal at the time
– they figured they’d get another one whenever they turned in another
application.

Except that they didn’t. In the fall of 2007, the state of Kansas made
the unprecedented decision to deny the power company. Cindy Hertel is with
Sunflower.

“It would be like going for your drivers license, taking the drivers
test, passing it, then being denied your drivers license because you
don’t drive a Prius. Can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.
And that’s what happened.”

Rod Bremby is the Secretary of Health and Environment in Kansas. He says
the state didn’t really change the rules on regulating CO2 because there
aren’t any rules on CO2. And since there’s no federal regulations,
Secretary Bremby instituted a state regulation. He said it would be
irresponsible not to regulate the gases causing climate change.

Stephanie Cole with the Sierra Club called it a watershed moment.

“We were excited, we were stunned – however, it wasn’t long after
that, legislators from Western Kansas started making comments that they
disapproved of Secretary Bremby’s decision and that they were going to
make legislative attempts to overturn the permit denial. So victory was
short-lived.”

Since then, the power company, Sunflower, has hired lobbyists. They’ve
helped legislators draft new bills to allow the coal-burning power plant.
The power company sued both the previous and current governor for civil
rights violations. For two years – nothing.

Then Kansas got a new governor – Mark Parkinson. Almost immediately
after he became governor last May, he cut a deal with Sunflower. Stop the
lawsuits. Build only one unit, not two or three. And, most importantly to
the Governor’s agenda, put in transmission lines to Colorado so that
Kansas can start exporting wind energy out of state.

Kansas is the third windiest state in the country. But it needs
infrastructure to get that wind-power to other states. And, in the
governor’s deal, power companies like Sunflower help build that
infrastructure.

Cole, with the Sierra Club, said the deal was very much a let-down.

“Because it is very troubling to many of us who have been involved in
this so long. It is such a disappointment.”

For a moment the battle seemed to be over. But, it wasn’t.

In July, Sunflower received a letter from the EPA asking them to submit a
new application for a permit. John Knodel is an environmental engineer
with the EPA.

“It’s not appropriate, in our mind, that they take an application that
was for three 700 MW units and simply say, ‘that was bigger, this project
is smaller.’ We say, ‘you have to go through a process and make it
very clear what this new project is all about.’”

Now that the EPA is stepping in, Sunflower & the Sierra Club are back to
square one.

The power company is expected to turn in its new application this fall.
The Sierra Club is expected to fight it. And Sunflower is expected to
fight back.

Cindy Hertel with Sunflower says the power company is just trying to keep
electricity bills low.

Hertel: “This is still in the best interest of our members.”

Browne: “This still makes sense economically?”

Hertel: “It still makes sense. What people need to know is that we are
cost biased, not fuel biased.”

Browne: “And, right now, for Sunflower, that means coal.”

But it might not be coal for very long.

The U.S. House passed a bill last winter that includes a hefty carbon tax
and incentives for renewable energy. A similar bill was recently
introduced in the Senate.

If it passes, Kansas might find its wind energy not only beats coal in
price, but wind-power could become the next big export for the state.

For The Environment Report, I’m Devin Browne.

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Keeping the Breadbasket From Drying Up

  • Bob Price is one of many farmers in Southwestern Kansas who signed up for a government program that pays farmers for their water rights and put portions of their land back into grass. (Photo by Devin Browne)

Right now, America’s Bread Basket
relies on an aquifer that’s nearly
drained. And, many say, it will dry
up if farmers keep pumping water
from it at the current rate. Devin
Browne reports the government plans
to pay farmers as one way to get them
to cut water use:

Transcript

Right now, America’s Bread Basket
relies on an aquifer that’s nearly
drained. And, many say, it will dry
up if farmers keep pumping water
from it at the current rate. Devin
Browne reports the government plans
to pay farmers as one way to get them
to cut water use:

Bob Price is every bit the Heartland farmer. He’s dressed head-to-toe in denim with a belt
buckle the size of a small plate. Just like his neighbors, he grows thirsty plants like corn
and alfalfa. But, the land is so dry and so sandy that many agricultural experts think it’s
not suitable for farming.

When Price moved to Southwestern Kansas in 1973, it didn’t seem to matter that the land
was so dry. In his pick-up, on the way to his farm, he tells me that it was the beginning
of an irrigation boom.

“Out here everyone was getting up early, going to work, and all along Highway 50 it was
irrigation pumps, irrigation pipe, engines; this was like a frontier back then.”

At that time, the government heavily subsidized the costs of irrigation. The farmers were
getting an almost immediate return. Their land appreciated almost overnight once
irrigation was established.

Farmers began to pump water – and lots of it – from one of the world’s largest
underground water supplies, the Ogallala Aquifer. They pumped two-feet of water for
every acre they farmed, right onto their crops.

“Meanwhile, the water table is declining and the water that we’re pumping is coming
from farther and farther down and, even with the same energy cost, it cost more to suck
water out of the ground from 500 feet.”

Last year, it cost Price more than $200,000 for the electricity to run the pumps to irrigate
about 900 acres of land. It’s one of the reasons he started to consider other options.

At the same time, the government, on both the state and federal level, started to think of
how to save the water left in the Ogallala Aquifer. Rivers were drying up and several
states in the Plains were suing or being sued for taking more water than they’re allowed.

Several states initiated water conservation programs as a response; Kansas was the first to
do it without the threat of a lawsuit. The program started in 2007. The strategy: pay
farmers to permanently retire their water rights.

Price had actually been wanting to take some of his land out of crops anyways. He’s a
prairie chicken enthusiast and he wants to start a guided hunting business. Prairie
chickens need prairie grass.

“So we’re farming one day, and we’re thinking, ‘sure would be nice to get that into
grass,’ but that’s an overwhelmingly expensive proposition.”

It’s not expensive to plant or grow prairie grass. You don’t need any irrigation for either.
But you do need irrigation for a cover crop that the farmers are required to grow for two
years before they can get to the grass. Susan Stover is with the Kansas Water Office.

“If we did not get something re-established there, we could have potentially dust storms
again and sand dunes moving and really big blow-outs.”

Blow-outs like Depression-Era, Dust Bowl blow-outs. So Price has to plant a cover crop
and pat double what he gets from the conservation program just to irrigate it.

Ironically, the government pays him sizeable subsidies to keep other land in corn, which
needs water from the aquifer to grow. So basically, one government program is paying
Price to stop using so much water, while, at the same time, other government programs
are paying him subsidies to grow the crops that need so much water.

Price would actually like more money to put the land back into grass, but if he wants to
lead hunting trips for prairie chickens and he wants prairie grass, there’s only one outfit
willing to pay him anything to plant that grass – the government.

For The Environment Report, I’m Devin Browne.

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Ethanol Part 1: Running the Well Dry?

  • Ethanol is starting to bring prosperity to some rural communities. But there are also concerns about whether adding this new industry to other industries - and cities - that draw on groundwater supplies will cause local shortages of water. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

It’s no surprise that the Corn Belt is the heart of the ethanol boom.
Two main ingredients you need to make ethanol are corn and water.
There’s no shortage of corn of course, and in most places it’s assumed
there’s also plenty of water. But as Rebecca Williams reports, even
people in water-rich states are getting concerned about ethanol’s
thirst for groundwater:

Transcript

It’s no surprise that the Corn Belt is the heart of the ethanol boom.
Two main ingredients you need to make ethanol are corn and water.
There’s no shortage of corn of course, and in most places it’s assumed
there’s also plenty of water. But as Rebecca Williams reports, even
people in water-rich states are getting concerned about ethanol’s
thirst for groundwater:


Bob Libra can tell a lot about water by looking at rocks. We’re in his
rock library – it even has a Dewey decimal system. Libra’s holding up
one of the 35,000 chunks of rock in here.


(Sound of scraping on limestone core)


“This for example is a core from a well. You can look at this and say well this is
what the plumbing system’s like down there.”


Libra’s a state geologist with the Iowa Department of Natural
Resources. Part of his job is to figure out how healthy his state’s
water supplies are. Any time a test well is drilled for a new ethanol
plant, rock samples get sent here.


Outside the rock library, there are three red pipes sticking up out of
the ground. These are observation wells that tap into sources of
groundwater far underground, called deep aquifers:


“A lot of people refer to it as Paleo-water or fossil water. It’s been
down there tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of
years.”


Libra says the water in those deep aquifers is pumped out for
everything from drinking water to ethanol plants. But as it’s pumped
out, it’s not replaced right away. It could take hundreds or thousands
of years to replenish the aquifers.


Geologists use the observation wells and rock samples to figure out how
much water is in those aquifers. But here at the rock library, those
samples are piling up into small mountains in the storage room. Bob
Libra says his state is way behind. Iowa hasn’t updated its groundwater
maps for 20 years:


“I think Iowa’s in the same kind of situation that a lot of states that
tend not to think of themselves as ‘water poor’ are finding themselves.
We haven’t paid attention to it for 20 years and suddenly BANG we’re
using an awful lot. And we have people every day going I’m interested
in putting a plant here – how much water can I get over here? And it’s
happening very rapidly.”


Each state has its own way of managing its groundwater. In Iowa, you
have to have a permit if you’re withdrawing more than 25,000 gallons of
water per day from a well or stream. Libra says the ethanol boom has
overwhelmed the state office where permits are handed out for the
asking:


“I’m at this location, I’m drilling into this aquifer, I’m going
to extract this amount of water. Here’s my $25 for a 10-year permit.”


Libra says nobody’s really checking to see if all these water
withdrawals will work for the next few decades.


How much water ethanol plants consume depends on who you talk to. But
on average, it takes between three and four gallons of water to make
one gallon of ethanol. Bob Libra says here in Iowa, adding new ethanol
plants is like adding a bunch of new towns out in the cornfields:


“A lot of ethanol plants they’re building now are on the order of 100
million gallon per year capacity so they’d be using about 400 million
gallons of water a year which is roughly as much as a town of 10,000
people.”


In some drier states, new ethanol plants are running into opposition.
Mark Muller is with the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy. He
says groundwater is local. So, what works in one place might be a
crisis in another:


“We’ve already seen it in Southwest Minnesota where a plant was denied because
of a lack of water resources. There’s a couple big fights going on in
Kansas right now over water availability. I think this is going to
probably one of the big drivers that’s going to make the industry look
further East rather than in the Midwest/Great Plains.”


The ethanol industry argues that it has already cut back on water use.
Lucy Norton is the managing director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels
Association. She says it’s in the industry’s best interest to be
careful with water:


“We’re not going to see a plant built somewhere where it’s an iffy
situation as to whether 10 years from now we’re going to have enough
water. You don’t put $200 million investment into a location that’s
not going to be able to sustain itself 10 years from now.”


But even if the water supplies could last 50 years, once the water is
gone from the aquifers, it’s gone for a long time.


There are a lot of
test wells going in these days, with 123 plants in operation and more
than 80 under construction around the country.


The growing political pressure for more and more ethanol is making
state officials eager to figure out exactly what’s underground, instead
of just assuming there’s enough water.


For the Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Charting a Course for the ‘Big Muddy’

  • A recent National Academy of Sciences report on the Missouri River suggested some of the river's natural meanders and access to the flood plain be restored. It also suggested sections of the river be reviewed to see if barge traffic might be closed for parts of the year or permanently.

The National Academy of Sciences has issued a report that calls for the restoration of the longest river in the United States. That report says the government needs to stop studying problems along the Missouri River and – with the help of residents – do something about them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham has the story:

Transcript

The National Academy of Sciences has issued a report that calls for the restoration of the longest river in the United States. That report says the government needs to stop studying problems along the Missouri River and – with the help of residents – do something about them. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

On the opposite bank from here, you can see the Big Muddy empty into the Mississippi River. I’m standing on the spot where Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery spent the winter before starting their historic expedition up the Missouri, across the Rockies and to the Pacific coast. If Lewis and Clark could see the Missouri today, there’s little that they’d recognize at this end of the river. Over the years it’s been straightened, walled-in by levees and channelized. Its braided river system of meanders, backwaters and eddies, once alive with wildlife are – for the most part – gone.

Seventy years ago as the government began huge civil engineering projects; it expected the Missouri River to be a major transportation means of getting grain from the farm fields of Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri to the markets. But as it’s turned out, almost all of the grain from those states is moved to market by truck or rail or in Missouri’s case on the Mississippi River. Only a tiny fraction less than one-half of one-percent of all the grain harvested in those states is moved by barge on the Missouri River.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, barge traffic on the Missouri benefits the economy by saving about seven million dollars in transportation costs. But some years the Army Corps of Engineers spends that much maintaining the lower Missouri as a navigable river, and the taxpayers foot the bill.

The National Academy of Sciences – the NAS – was instructed to study the Missouri River and determine the best uses of the river and its flood plain. Stephen Gloss was the chair of the committee that wrote the final report. He says one thing’s certain; the condition of the Missouri River has been studied to death. Its problems are well documented.

“The people should understand the Missouri River ecosystem is in a significant state of decline. There’s been a lot of degradation of the ecological properties of the system. There’s ample scientific evidence to credibly demonstrate that and there doesn’t need to be any more research done to make that credible. The most important thing is to undertake some immediate action.”

The NAS report suggested that the people of the states along the Missouri River should start figuring out where some of the Missouri’s meanders could be replaced and where it could be allowed back into its old flood plain.

At a town hall meeting in Columbia, Missouri, three of the authors of the study, including Stephen Gloss, met recently with representatives of the barge industry, agriculture and government agencies along the Missouri River and with the public. A farmer from Oregon, Missouri, Lanny Meng, told the NAS committee members he’s heard this kind of talk for several years, and he didn’t much like it.

“When they talk about meanders of the Missouri channel and they talk about connectivity with the flood plain. And that flood plain’s my cornfield.”

“Well, I think that the flow change and the management change of the Missouri River’s gonna have a drastic negative affect on my farming practice, and my neighbor’s farming practice and my county. Things will change badly for our community?”

The farmers are not the only ones concerned about change on the Missouri River. The barge industry, which depends on keeping the water level artificially high and the channel deep doesn’t believe there’s enough water to keep the reservoirs full in the upper Missouri, make new diversions for wildlife backwaters and meanders, and keep the barges floating.

Chris Bescia is with the barge industry group Midwest Area River Coalition 2000, better known as MARC-2000.

“So, when the National Academy of Science report says that we want to have more cuts and alluvial deviations in the river, when they say that we want to re-connect the flood plain, when they say all these things, that’s essentially taking out the channel training structures that are designed to maintain a nine foot channel.”

Which the barges need to push their cargo up and down stream.

The NAS report indicates that the people along the river and the state and federal agencies that have authority can find a balance between the commercial and agricultural interests and that of those who want better hunting, fishing, or simply better habitat for the sake of the wildlife and the natural beauty.

Chad Smith is with the environmental group American Rivers. He says it will take some compromises, but it can be done.

“The Missouri is not even close to living up to its potential. And we’re missing out on a lot of quality of life benefits, but also on a lot of economic benefits by managing this river as a ditch and not as a river.”

Smith stresses that no one is calling for the end of barge traffic on the Missouri, or wants the end of farming in the flood plain. But Smith says there’s been just a little too much development of the river, and we need to restore parts of it here and there.

The chief author of the National Academy of Sciences report, Steven Gloss, says that work needs to begin quickly because it will take a very long time to fix the Missouri River’s problems.

“We’ve been at this for a long time, a hundred years or better and, you know, it’s gonna take several decades to get it back a little bit in the other direction. I think we really need to look at this as a long-term sustained process. It’s not something we can find a solution for in five years and walk away from it. We need to be at this for the rest of our lives and for future generations.”

But Gloss stresses this cannot be a job for the government alone. The NAS report says the Missouri can only find balance between the competing interests if the people along the Missouri River all have a seat at the table and share in the river’s wealth.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.

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