DES MOINES, Iowa — Hot-button issues such as clean power, water-quality regulations and renewable fuels are expected to get a bigger stage in the 2016 Iowa Caucuses, as environmental activists put more pressure on presidential contenders to address controversial issues such as climate change.
But experts still expect that concerns about saving the planet likely will play second, third and possibly even fourth fiddle to issues such as jobs and the economy, heath care and national security. The key, they say, may be to link the environment to popular measures such as wind and solar energy that can create jobs while also reducing America’s carbon footprint.
“If you’re a candidate that’s looking for a way to talk about the environment, Iowa provides a perfect road map for that,” said Josh Mandelbaum, the Des Moines attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “You can stay away from the most polarizing issues and talk about areas where in Iowa you have bipartisan support” such as wind energy.
Republican presidential hopefuls so far have typically said that the federal government has been too heavy-handed with regulation and expressed little support for government incentives to develop alternative energy sources. Democratic hopefuls such as Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have been more outspoken in their support.
Howard Learner, Executive Director, says Iowa is helping to power the world through renewable energy businesses that build wind machines and solar panel equipment.
Learner says what’s interesting is the number of businesses across Iowa that are involved in making the equipment, designing and doing the engineering work for wind farms, handling the legal work and making component parts.
“So it’s good for manufacturing jobs as well as being good for construction jobs at the wind farms. It’s good for economic development in both in rural areas where the wind farms go up and in the manufacturing hubs like Cedar Rapids or Newton where the blades and other equipment is being made. And it’s good for the environment by leading to cleaner air and cleaner water for everybody.”
Learner says Iowa has been a leader in wind power for a long time. He says wind supplies 27% of the electricity generation in Iowa.
Wind and solar energy support about 30,000 jobs at about a thousand companies in Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, according to a series of reports released by the Environmental Law & Policy Center over the past two weeks.
The reports show the jobs created not only by the manufacture of wind turbine components, the building of wind farms and the installation of solar panels, but also in related businesses from banking to making cables and glass.
“We continue to be impressed by the robustness and the diversity of these jobs,” said ELPC executive director Howard Learner. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all. There are headquarters and manufacturing and construction jobs, retrofitting jobs, legal and insurance jobs, design and engineering, it’s really a diverse mix of skills for all types of companies.”
The ELPC is a member of RE-AMP, which publishesMidwest Energy News.
The supply chains have remained robust even as wind and solar have faced policy uncertainty at the state and federal level.
The ELPC and other groups say the renewal of the federal Production Tax Credit is crucial to future wind development and its supply chain impacts. The Siemens wind turbine blade plant in Fort Madison, Iowa laid off more than 400 of its 660 employees in 2012 because of uncertainty over the PTC. Many of those workers were rehired when the PTC was extended, the ELPC report notes, but now the credit is again in limbo.
Meanwhile the federal Investment Tax Credit which supports solar installations is in effect through 2016, with proponents hoping for a renewal.
In all three states and across the Midwest, federal grants under the USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) pay up to a quarter of the cost for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects at farms or small rural businesses. In 2014 Congress authorized continued funding of $250 million for five years.
The ELPC released its Iowa report on March 5, just before a major agricultural summit in Des Moines where Republican presidential hopefuls discussed their views.
Learner said renewable energy and the federal tax credits will likely be an issue in the presidential election, and the special role that Iowa plays is notable since public support for wind power in Iowa is strong.
SCOTUS: Amtrak Has Legal Authority to Set On-Time Performance Standards
WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision today affirming Amtrak’s power to create on-time performance standards could get slumping Midwest arrival times back on track.
“This is a good Supreme Court decision that should help rail passengers across the country,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which filed an amicus curiae brief in the case. “For every passenger who has been delayed for hours in Northwest Indiana or outside of Cleveland while oil tanker cars slog by, today’s court decision can be an important step forward.”
The Association of American Railroads challenged a federal law that allows Amtrak to help set on-time performance standards for railroads, arguing that Amtrak is a private company rather than a government entity. The Supreme Court, agreeing with the Department of Transportation and ELPC, held that Amtrak is more like a government entity.
The DC Court of Appeals had struck down a provision of the 2008 rail reauthorization bill that instructed the Federal Railroad Administration and Amtrak—consulting with the Surface Transportation Board, freight railroads, states, rail labor, and rail passenger organizations—to develop metrics and minimum standards for measuring Amtrak passenger train performance and service quality.
“Today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling settles that legal question,” Learner said. “Amtrak is a government entity. Given this ruling, the existing on-time performance standards should be enforced and passenger rail should again be given priority.”
In an amicus curiae brief filed by ELPC, on behalf of itself and the National Association of Railroad Passengers, All Aboard Ohio and Virginians for High Speed Rail, ELPC found that on-time arrival rates had suffered since the appeals court ruling. In 2012, Amtrak achieved a nationwide on-time performance rate of 83 percent. Since the standards were invalidated by the Court of Appeals, on-time performance fell to an abysmal 42 percent.
While this is a major victory for Amtrak passengers across the nation, the Supreme Court’s ruling does raise the possibility of a lengthy court fight should the Association of American Railroads seek to continually litigate other issues around on-time performance.
“The highest court in the land has spoken and we hope is that freight railroads will move forward as a partner to improve passenger rail service across America,” added Learner.
Wind energy advocates are urging presumptive 2016 presidential candidates to back key industry incentives at a Iowa summit this weekend.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center and League of Conservation Voters yesterday said they hope to see presidential candidates attending the Iowa Agriculture Summit voice support for the wind production tax credit and other pro-wind policies.
ELPC yesterday also issued a report yesterday touting the economic benefits of wind power, which provides 27 percent of electricity in Iowa. Candidates would do well to remember that wind energy is a “pocketbook issue” in Iowa, ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner said.
“Iowa has a long history of bipartisan support for clean renewable wind power even as it’s controversial in Washington, D.C.,” Learner said.
Many Republican presumptive presidential candidates are expected to speak tomorrow at the first Iowa Agriculture Summit. Iowa agribusiness leader Bruce Rastetter organized the event, which will take place in Des Moines and will feature 20-minute interviews with each potential candidate about agricultural and renewable energy issues.
Among the confirmed guests: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York Gov. George Pataki, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, Donald Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
A host of Iowa politicians are also scheduled to attend.
Several presumptive Democratic candidates were invited, but none accepted. The speakers will be addressing an audience of businesspeople, farmers, food processing and agriculture businesses, legislators and students, according to event organizers.
Learner said that it will be important for candidates to stake out a position on the tax credit, which provides producers of wind with a $23-per-megawatt-hour incentive.
“I’d be relatively confident that, if not on Saturday, as the candidates make their way across Iowa, they will be asked for their views on extension of the production tax credit,” he said.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who will be speaking at the summit, wrote the original wind production tax credit in 1992. Congress allowed the tax credit to lapse at the beginning of the year, and industry supporters hope to see a longer-term extension or phaseout of the credit included in a comprehensive tax reform or a package extending several renewable energy tax incentives.
Earlier this year, a majority of the Senate voted against reinstating the credit as an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline approval legislation.
Daniel Weiss, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, said no potential Republican candidate has made a clear statement of support for extending the PTC. Three — Graham, Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who backed out of the summit at the last minute to attend a family wedding — have cast votes against its extension.
Weiss said that the League of Conservation Voters is looking for presumptive candidates to support the PTC over opposition by conservative groups linked to the billionaire Koch brothers.
“The question that ought to be asked of the candidates, or potential candidates who are coming to Iowa on Saturday, is: Do they agree with Iowa farmers and Iowa manufacturers … or will they join the Koch brothers to oppose its renewal?” he said.
Earlier this week, 24 agriculture organizations also called on presidential hopefuls to voice support for renewable energy.
“We urge the Iowa Ag Summit speakers, local and national, to acknowledge the critical role of renewable energy and to support enabling public policies that will allow it to contribute to a strong and vibrant rural economy,” the groups wrote. “Renewable energy development should be a priority of policymakers on both sides of the aisle.”
The letter was signed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union, 25x’25 Alliance, American Council on Renewable Energy, National Corn Growers Association and American Soybean Association, among others.
In January, ethanol backers launched a campaign called America’s Renewable Future to rally support for the renewable fuel standard ahead of the Iowa presidential caucuses. The campaign, which has key allies in Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and Iowa renewable fuel groups, plans to host a reception in Des Moines tonight before the summit.
Iowa isn’t just all about corn and soybeans anymore.
The Hawkeye State generates 27 percent of its electricity from wind, the most in the nation, according to the Wind Energy Foundation. It also boasts 4,000 industry-related jobs. And companies dole out millions in annual payments to farmers who agree to erect wind turbines on their land.
That’s why when nearly a dozen potential Republican presidential candidates drop into the first-in-the-nation caucus state for an agriculture summit this Saturday, they are likely to be pressed for their position on the federal wind production tax credit, which Congress allowed to expire last year.
The credit provided companies willing to embark on a new wind project 2.3 cents per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. Backers call the incentive vital to spurring growth in the renewable fuel industry; opponents dub it a handout to wealthy investors.
But in Iowa, it has the rare blessing of bipartisan support.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is the original sponsor of the credit. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad has lobbied for a federal extension. Even Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is on board.
Yet last month, Grassley was just one of three GOP senators to back its continuation.
Environmental groups on the left see that vote, coupled with this weekend’s Republican forum, as an opportunity to box the 2016 hopefuls into a corner.
“Three of the people coming – Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Sen. Marco Rubio – have all voted against extension of the production tax credit,” Daniel Weiss, senior vice president of campaigns for the League of Conservation Voters, noted on a conference call Thursday.
(Originally scheduled to attend the forum, Rubio, R-Fla., said he won’t make it due to a family wedding.)
Cruz has already indicated he opposes renewable fuel standards that provide subsidies that allow the government to “pick winners and losers.” It looks as if the freshman agitator will gamble with a stand on principle, advocating an unpopular opinion locally.
For others, it’s less clear.
In 2005, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law legislation requiring the state to increase its renewable energy capacity, which helped make it the leader in wind power.
But when Perry ran for president in 2012, he indicated he opposed extending the wind tax credit.
Gov. Scott Walker’s 2011 proposal in Wisconsin to restrict where wind turbines could be built was seen as an attempt to erect “the biggest hurdle to wind farm development in the nation,” according to industry advocates.
And while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has endorsed a goal of the U.S. producing 25 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2025, he hasn’t recently taken a specific position on the wind credit renewal.
There are political cross-pressures for the potential candidates to consider.
Americans For Prosperity, the free market group backed by David and Charles Koch, has lobbied strongly against the tax credit, calling it “corporate welfare.”
“When the federal government props up failing energy industries by giving them special handouts, Americans end up footing the bill,” AFP President Tim Phillips said last year.
So with conservatives split on the policy, Saturday’s forum could present a tricky choice for the hopefuls: Side with Iowa Republicans or align with the Koch brothers.
“I’d be relatively confident that, if not Saturday, as the candidates make their way across Iowa, they will be asked their views on the extension,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
DES MOINES – More than 100 Iowa businesses in the wind power and solar energy supply chain are providing more than 4,000 jobs to people across the state who are manufacturing, financing, designing, engineering, building, installing and maintaining renewable energy projects here and across the nation, as detailed in the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC)’s study released today. The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) joins in the report’s release to underscore why politicians attending this weekend’s Ag Summit should support renewable energy policies that benefit farmers and rural communities.
“The upcoming Ag Summit participants should recognize how Iowa is a national leader in wind power development, which provides additional income for farmers and creates jobs and economic development in Iowa’s rural communities,” said ELPC Executive Director Howard A. Learner. “Iowa has a well-trained workforce that is building the renewable energy equipment used around the world. People say Iowa feeds the world; now Iowa is helping power the world, too.”
“The report shows that clean energy means Iowa jobs. The politicians at the Iowa Ag Summit should join Sen. Grassley and Gov. Branstad in supporting the federal Production Tax Credit for wind electricity to benefit farmers,” said Daniel J. Weiss, Senior Vice President for Campaigns, League of Conservation Voters. “The visiting suitors must reject conservative organizations’ efforts to kill the wind industry in Iowa and across the nation.”
ELPC’s report identified 75 wind power supply chain companies and 47 solar energy supply chain. The businesses were identified through ELPC’s analysis of data from several industry groups and then contacted individually to confirm their supply chain role.
For businesses involved in the installation and construction of wind power and solar energy projects, increased renewable energy development results in new business and increased economic activity in the communities where they operate.
“Heartland Energy Solutions and other Iowa businesses in the renewable energy industry are working hard to innovate and develop new technologies to bring down our energy costs,” said Charlie Sharp, President and CEO of the Mount Ayr-based wind turbine manufacturer. “Supportive policies not only help my business but also bring clean, affordable energy to the state. Iowa should continue leading the way.”
Policies that support renewable energy development also help Iowa farmers, who can gain revenues from wind turbines on their property and can reduce their utility bills by installing solar panels.
“I really believe that the more policies that can be developed to promote more growth in wind power and solar power is helping our landowners, helping our communities and making Iowa a national leader in something that’s really exciting ,” said Mark Kuhn, a Floyd County Supervisor and area farmer who has wind turbines on his property. “This is about developing our own natural resources – the wind and the sun.”
The ELPC report’s findings also offer insights into the types of businesses driving Iowa’s growing renewable energy sector. For example, the average size of a renewable energy supply chain business in Iowa is 37.7 employees.
Because Iowa is a relatively “small state,” the average Iowa supply chain business is quite large. The major wind equipment component manufacturers in Iowa employ large numbers of people,” said John Paul Jewell, Research Coordinator at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
Today the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to authorize $8 billion in Amtrak funding. While the U.S. Senate still needs to consider the matter, this vote is a victory for ELPC and allies, who have been fighting back against anti-Amtrak amendments – including one introduced earlier this week that would have eliminated all funding for Amtrak, effectively ending all long-distance and state Amtrak train service.
Almost 700 ELPC followers and thousands of others throughout the country wrote to their Members of Congress with a clear message: Americans want a strong national train network and elected officials who support. This grassroots support played a huge role in securing today’s bipartisan vote.
Jeremy P. Jacobs, E&E reporter Published: Friday, February 27, 2015
Ask Chicago environmentalists who’s the Windy City’s best lawyer, and they’re likely to name Howard Learner.
Learner has built his Environmental Law and Policy Center into a Midwest powerhouse over the last 20 years on transportation and clean energy issues, scoring victories in courtrooms and state legislatures along the way.
His shop eschews the national spotlight for a hyper-regional focus that he says is part of the group’s DNA.
“First of all, we are Midwesterners,” he said. “The Midwest is probably the most important region in the most important country in the world.”
ELPC is among a few regional environmental law centers that operate in the gap between national Goliaths like the Natural Resources Defense Council and small grass-roots organizations. The center takes on major litigation — fighting lawsuits brought by former Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon, arguing for solar and wind energy in state Supreme Courts, and battling Great Lakes pollution. Moreover, it has developed a lobbying operation that pressures government officials — from U.S. senators to mayors — to support environmentally progressive policies.
Learner prides himself on leading a “grass-tops” organization, meaning it seeks to unite leaders from often-opposing camps — such as unions and local chambers of commerce — to push for common goals.
Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but ELPC is now thriving, thanks largely to Learner’s grasp of regional politics.
“He has steered clear of the weird political fights,” said J. Paul Forrester, an energy and agricultural specialist at Mayer Brown in Chicago. “He has a lot of political acumen. I give him a lot of credit for that. That’s helped him avoid ugly confrontation.”
Learner, 59, lives a mile-and-a-half from where he was born in Chicago. The son of a University of Wisconsin football player, he’s well over 6 feet tall and bearded. He cuts an imposing presence that he establishes right away with a firm handshake.
Growing up as an outdoorsman, Learner biked across Wisconsin several times and always had a backpack ready for weekend trips. He attended the University of Michigan and remains a devoted fan of the Wolverine football team, then headed to Harvard Law School.
He returned to Chicago with his law degree and worked for a public interest law firm that specialized in housing cases. Learner launched the group’s environmental practice and specialized in pro bono work.
In 1991, seven major foundations pooled funds and asked several local lawyers for proposals for a regional-based legal center to address environmental programs in the Midwest. Such a group didn’t exist, and, as Learner recalled, there were ample reasons the region needed one.
The Great Lakes contain nearly a fifth of the world’s freshwater supply and provide drinking water to more than 40 million people. At the time, electricity utilities were becoming more regionally focused, building power lines across state borders. The Midwest was also home to some of the dirtiest coal-fired power plants. Three-quarters of the pollution in the Great Lakes was coming from the energy and transportation sectors.
The region also served as the nexus of multiple types of transportation; interstate highways crisscross the area, as do major railways. And Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport serves as a hub of air travel in the region.
“If you are serious about solving our climate change problems, and you’re serious about keeping the Great Lakes clean,” Learner said, “you need to deal with the energy and transportation sectors on a regional basis.”
Learner applied for the funding, basing his proposal in part on other regional outfits like the Conservation Law Foundation in New England, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund on the West Coast, which has since become Earthjustice.
The foundations backed Learner, guaranteeing $850,000 per year for three years. He left his practice, rented a storefront and started assembling furniture.
At the core of the group’s philosophy from the start, Learner said, was devising “pragmatic solutions” that paired environmental benefits with economic growth and job creation. Now such proposals are increasingly common among environmental groups, but at the time they weren’t.
Learner pledged that whenever his group came out against a project or proposal, it would say yes to a less harmful alternative.
“We said from the beginning we weren’t going to get boxed in as naysayers,” he said.
ELPC now has an annual budget of more than $6.5 million and about 50 employees in eight offices throughout the Midwest. It divides its efforts into two groups. Its strategic advocacy arm lobbies and files lawsuits to fight what it views as environmentally harmful policies. And second, it brings parties together to come up with “eco-business” deals and proposals, such as working with labor unions, local chambers of commerce and officials to facilitate solar and wind energy development in the Midwest, or a regional high-speed rail network.
Those efforts have yielded results. Iowa is the second-largest wind energy producer in the country, and Illinois, Minnesota and Kansas all rank within the top 10. And plans for a regional high-speed rail proposal to serve 60 million people in eight states are starting to jell. The St. Louis-to-Chicago-to-Detroit line is being built, and sections already run at 110 mph. The effort has garnered the support of the Obama administration, which committed $13 billion in the 2009 stimulus package.
Looking for opportunity
ELPC’s success is due in large part to Learner’s relentlessness.
Jerry Adelmann, president of the Chicago-based Openlands conservation group, said it typically takes Learner “two seconds” to respond to an email.
“He lives and breathes this stuff,” Adelmann said. “It’s part of his very being.”
To his foes — which are typically entrenched energy utilities — Learner can come off as a zealot. But he has overcome such criticism through political adeptness, which is unusual for someone who wears his Democratic-leaning politics on his sleeve.
Learner was Illinois delegate at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and has served on political committees that others in the nongovernmental organization community would likely shy away from out of fear of reprisals from the other side.
“Howard is out front in terms of his politics,” Adelmann said.
Learner seems to dodge most blowback, though, largely because of his instincts.
“I think Howard is one of those visionary leaders,” said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney in ELPC’s Des Moines, Iowa, office. “His mind is always spinning, and he sort of sees the direction that things are moving. He is constantly trying to anticipate what opportunities will present themselves and constantly trying to take advantage of them in a strategic way.”
That doesn’t mean ELPC doesn’t have critics.
Todd Maisch, president of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said it’s possible to have a “reasonable conversation” with ELPC. But he stressed that the group often presses for more stringent environmental controls than his members can support.
“Bottom line is, we think a big part of their agenda results in very little environmental improvement but huge costs,” Maisch said.
He added that ELPC’s coalition building is often less successful than the group says.
“Their attempts,” he said, “to bring people together to build a consensus — a lot more of those fail than succeed.”
Battling energy tycoon
Learner and ELPC can nevertheless point to significant achievements, both on the large and small scale.
ELPC was part of a coalition that pushed for the closure of two old power plants in 2012 on Chicago’s South Side, the city’s last two coal-fired facilities. Before that, it fought to ensure that wastewater was treated before utilities discharged it into the Chicago River.
And last summer, ELPC lawyers secured an Iowa Supreme Court victory in challenging an Iowa Utilities Board decision that created an unfavorable and expensive environment for solar energy development in the state.
There is also a strong “defender of the little guy” thread to their work. Perhaps no case illustrates that better than ELPC’s work for a small community in Saugatuck, Mich., against former Chesapeake CEO McClendon.
An artsy Lake Michigan resort town with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents, Saugatuck is a 2½-hour drive from Chicago. In summer, tourists visit the town’s art galleries, shops and renowned beach dunes. The community has sought to protect those attractions from development by passing strict zoning laws.
Those efforts were threatened, however, in 2007, when McClendon bought 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River that the town had been trying to make part of the public domain and conserve for 50 years.
McClendon wanted to build a gated community and resort on the land, with a nine-hole golf course, hotel, mansions and condos. Within 30 days of purchasing the property, he filed a series of lawsuits challenging Saugatuck’s zoning laws.
Overwhelmed, David Swan and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance turned to Learner for help.
ELPC took the cases, and Swan said the group’s attorneys became part of the community. They also provided communications and marketing support to Swan and his allies.
They were able to halt McClendon’s development. In November 2011, a federal district court judge threw out a settlement between McClendon and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have essentially removed zoning provisions from the property. The judge ruled that the settlement would have illegally prevented the board from ever updating its zoning laws for the property.
Further, the court held that any future such settlement would require a hearing to ensure it benefits the “public good.”
There remains some ongoing litigation, but the community has since bought back half the land McClendon purchased. And, Swan said, nothing has been built on McClendon’s land.
Swan credits ELPC with saving the dunes — and his community.
“It just kind of amazed me,” Swan said. “Here was a really brilliant attorney, who is really busy with huge projects, and he doesn’t let small projects like trying to save 400 acres of pristine duneland fall by the wayside.”
On Friday, Feb. 6th, ELPC Senior Policy Advocate Andy Olsen spoke at the USDA’s National Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Stakeholder Forum, which outlined program improvements since REAP’s recent overhaul and highlighted stakeholder successes. To access a free webcast of the event, click here.
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