Good and Bad News in 2014 for Sustainable Energy and Agriculture

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By Elena Day

It was a happy day on December 29 when the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant shut down for good. Vermont residents and anti-nuke activists had protested the  Entergy-owned reactor for decades.  The General Electric Mark I reactor was similar in design to the Fukushima reactors that melted down and exploded. In 2007 Vermont Yankee’s cooling tower had collapsed and in 2010 radioactive tritium had leaked from corroded pipes into the groundwater. The spent fuel assemblies remain on site in water pools and will likely be transferred later to dry casks.  After 40-plus years of nuclear power generation, the federal government has no solution for safe disposal of the highly radioactive waste at Vermont Yankee or at any of the other 100 plus nuke plants in the U.S.  And regardless of nuclear advocates’ claims, the industry has a large carbon footprint from mining and milling uranium and the assemblage of fuel rods.

Closer to home, Dominion Virginia Power continues to move ahead with licensing a third nuclear power plant at North Anna, which everyone know sits very close to an active earthquake fault, 30 miles from Charlottesville and 42 miles from Crozet.  North Anna Units 1 and 2 have had their operating licenses extended to 60 years.  There is evidence that embrittlement of components is a safety issue in aging reactors. Fewer than 300 spaces are left for spent fuel assemblies in the water pools  and the pads where the dry casks are stored will be filled by 2020.  By act of our General Assembly, Dominion can pass on costs of construction to the ratepayers.   To date, Dominion, or rather the ratepayers, have spent at least $80 million to license North Anna 3.

Dominion successfully outbid Apex Virginia Offshore Wind LLC for federal wind leases off the Virginia coast in September 2013.   Dominion’s wind energy initiatives are minuscule compared to its investment in unlicensed North Anna 3. The New York Times reports that both wind and solar are now competitive with coal and natural gas, even without federal subsidies. (Federal subsidies for renewables are expected to disappear in the Republican-controlled 2015 Congress.) Wind energy costs are as low as 1.4 cents per kilowatt hour and as high as 3.7 cents per kilowatt hour without subsidies. Natural gas is 6.1 cents per kilowatt hour and coal is 6.6 cents per kilowatt hour.

Dominion has been spending a lot of money on the 550-mile natural gas Atlantic Coast Pipeline they are seeking to build from Harrison County, West Virginia, over our mountains, into Southside and then into eastern North Carolina. Of course, a pipeline “spur” to Hampton Roads is included. This means that West Virginia natural gas is for export, as is much of its mountaintop-removed coal.

Natural gas is not the interim fuel that will assure U.S. energy independence. This is evidenced by recent approval by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission (FERC) in September for Dominion’s natural gas liquefication plant at Cove Point in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. Cove Point will become an export facility rather than a receiving dock for natural gas from abroad. Dominion will also be building a 130 megawatt power plant to liquefy the gas for loading onto tankers. There are at least a dozen more applications to build liquefication plants along our coasts, all to fill tankers from overseas.

By the end of 2014, Dominion will have filed lawsuits against 56 Augusta County residents and 122 Nelson County residents who have refused Dominion’s request to survey their properties for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. I would say that these citizens are “speakers of truth to power.” There will be job creation as the pipeline is being built and Dominion will pay taxes to Southside counties strapped for revenue. Beyond that, the reality of the pipeline is one of environmental despoilation, accidents, spills and explosions along  the route, more fracking in West Virginia,  the increased possibility of fracking in Virginia’s own shale formations and big profits for energy exporters, i.e., Dominion and its partners,  AGL Resources, Piedmont Natural Gas, and Duke Energy.

It was another happy day when New York Governor Cuomo surprised anti-fracking activists by banning fracking in New York on December 17. New York joined Vermont as the only other state to ban this environmentally devastating extractive technology.  Western New York, where the Marcellus shale formation is located, would benefit greatly by an influx of jobs and money. State officials and the governor took a look at other fracked communities in North Dakota, neighboring Pennsylvania and in West Virginia. That natural gas extraction is a boom and bust industry is rather transparent. Their conclusion is that fracking will ultimately render communities worse off economically and socially.  Carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde make their way into groundwater.  Birth defects and respiratory illnesses increase.

Eight localities including Mendocino County, California; Athens, Ohio; and Denton, Texas banned fracking by ballot initiative in November. Canadian provinces Quebec and New Brunswick did so as well.

2015 was officially named “The International Year of Soils” by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization on December 5, World Soil Day. It is largely a symbolic gesture, but at least there is recognition that our soils are key to our planet’s food and farming systems. Soils are threatened by expanding cities, deforestation, unsustainable land use, pollution and overgrazing. Soils are being depleted 13 percent faster than they are replaced.

Ethanol production from corn, touted as a way to energy independence, plays a big role in soil degradation/depletion, especially in our Midwest. Biofuel production was encouraged beginning in 2007 when Congress passed the Renewable Fuel Standard.  Farmers could make money by planting corn for ethanol, so they plowed up grasslands and wetlands and planted corn rows closer together.  Some 830,000 acres of grassland have been plowed up in Nebraska and another 370,000 in South Dakota. Since 2007, 8 million acres of prairie have been lost to corn cultivation. Corn was planted year after year without crop rotation and farmers poured on the Roundup and other toxic chemicals eliminating even more habitat for pollinators (including Monarch butterflies).

The EPA recently approved Enlist Duo, which combines 2,4-D and glyphosate to kill superweeds that have become resistant to Roundup. Concurrently with approval of Enlist Duo, Dow AgroScience’s genetically modified corn, resistant to both 2,4-D and Roundup,  has been approved.

In 2014, 92 million acres were planted in corn and the U.S. produced the fifth largest corn crop since 1944. Corn (and soy) prices dropped significantly. One always hears that more corn is necessary to feed the increasing world population. Indeed, there is lots of corn syrup available, but the corn that U.S. farmers raise feeds cars first and then cattle. Corn ethanol production soared this year and the industry (not the farmer) is making record profits because of the mandate that ethanol be blended into gasoline.

Corn ethanol production causes significant air and water pollution. In September EPA’s inspector general concluded that corn ethanol production is a major cause of water pollution in the Mississippi River basin and the Gulf of Mexico.

Corn ethanol also lowers gas mileage. A study by the Environmental Working Group (May 2014) found that reducing the amount of corn ethanol in gasoline would lower greenhouse gas emissions. Congress would do well to review the Renewable Fuel Standard in 2015.

Oregon almost passed Measure 92, the labeling of genetically engineered foodstuffs.  It failed by 837 votes.

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