Friday, July 16, 2010

Advocates say Gates Foundation slights rural schools

Rural schools are being left out of policy changes that are reshaping the U.S. education system, including private funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, rural school advocates say. "The bulk of the Gates money, $264 million to pay for pilot reforms in teacher evaluation and performance pay, has gone to large urban school districts," Mary Schulken of Education Week reports on her Rural Education blog. "An additional $81 million has gone to charter schools and other initiatives, primarily in urban and suburban school districts." Many of the issues tackled by the foundation, like effective teaching, cross urban and rural lines.

"The Foundation funded work around smaller schools in mostly urban places—a sort of ironic phenomenon, given the consolidation of rural schools. And they funded some early-college initiatives in places like rural Appalachian Ohio," Caitlin Howley, senior manager of education and research for ICF International, an educational research firm in Charleston, W.Va., told Schulken. "But I don't think rural is part of what they've been thinking about." Howley added she hasn't seen any evidence the Gates Foundation is attending to the unique challenges of rural schools and communities.

Mil Duncan, the director of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, agreed but said Gates' urban focus is a matter of scale. "The Gates Foundation is looking for big impact so they go for big numbers, and it means little resources for rural places," Duncan, the author of Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, told Schulken. "I wish there were more resources directed toward rural kids, but I think in the longer run that if these reforms work in urban areas they will affect rural schools." John White, deputy secretary for rural outreach for the U.S. Department of Education, said "The department is working to feed growth in rural-focused philanthropy and to give rural districts support they need to thrive in a competitive grant-making environment," Schulken writes. (Read more)

Another company reveals its 'fracking' recipe, perhaps in effort to head off federal regulation

One of the largest Marcellus Shale natural-gas drilling companies has decided to fully disclose the chemicals it uses in hydraulic fracturing operations. "The company, Range Resources, said it will display the list on its website, giving regulators and landowners an account of the hazardous chemicals injected into each well," Nicholas Kusnetz of ProPublica reports. Deborah Goldberg, an attorney at Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm, said the disclosure could be critical in helping health specialists and regulators determine whether "fracking" is polluting drinking-water supplies. Range's list goes further than a previous one of 80 chemicals used by the drilling industry and released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection because it includes volume, concentration and purpose of the chemicals. Range was the first company to drill and complete a Marcellus well in Pennsylvania and has leased 1.3 million acres of the shale. (Read more)

The announcement from Texas-based Range, which also is active in the Barnett Shale play in Texas, "reflects the desire of industry to get out ahead of the issue to prevent federal regulation" of fracking, Mike Sorghan of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "At least one other major driller, Chesapeake Energy Corp., says it is considering disclosing chemicals used in fracking on a well-by-well basis, as Range is planning." Environmentalists welcomed the disclosure but still called for added regulation. "One company's efforts at transparency don't substitute for an industry-wide requirement that such substances be disclosed to the public," Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society told Sorghan. "Congress and state legislatures should move forward with requirements that all companies engaged in hydraulic fracturing publicly disclose the chemicals used in this process."

The industry's chief trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, is finalizing its own proposal for disclosure. Fracking operations inject thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into shale formations to create small cracks in the rock releasing otherwise unaccessible gas reserves. API spokeswoman Cathy Landry told Sorghan the four main facets of its disclosure policy will be "no federal regulation," maintaining state regulation, "confidentiality of proprietary information," and transparency (the definition of which can vary). (Read more)

David Dick, who went from network television to rural journalism, dies after long fight with cancer

David Dick, an Emmy-winning television reporter for CBS News who became a journalism educator and author and helped start a weekly newspaper in his home Bluegrass horse country, died this morning at his home in Plum Lick, Ky., after a 17-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 80. (2007 Herald-Leader photo by David Perry: Dick with wife Lalie)

Dick was born in Cincinnati, but after his father died his mother moved the family to her native Bourbon County, Kentucky. After working at WHAS Radio and TV in Louisville, he worked 20 years for CBS, covering the 1972 shooting of George Wallace and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. He credited cinematographer Laurens Pierce's footage of the Wallace shooting for the Emmy. After retiring from the network in 1985 he began teaching journalism at the University of Kentucky, his alma mater, and was director of UK's School of Journalism and Telecommunications from 1987 to 1993.

In 1988 Dick and some influential Bourbon County residents founded The Bourbon Times, a free weekly newspaper that took on Kentucky's oldest continuing paper, the Bourbon County Citizen. Until 1990, Dick was publisher of the paper, which tended to take the preservationist side in battles over development, such as the widening of US 27 and 68 to nearby Lexington. The Citizen was and is pro-development. The Times closed in 2004, and later that year Dick declined to discuss the newspaper war with a UK community-journalism student who wrote a research paper about it. But he remained our friend until the end.

In the last 20 years, David became widely known in Kentucky for his columns, essays and books, most of them drawing on his rural life. He was a favorite at the annual Kentucky Book Fair, reports The State Journal in Frankfort. He often wrote with his wife, Lalie, and wrote A Journal for Lalie, a book about living with cancer. His column appeared in Kentucky Living, the magazine of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives. This month's edition has his last column. He wrote his next-to-last book for the group, on the history of rural electrification in Kentucky.

"Although his focus softened in his later years as he wrote about rural life, Dick's 2002 book Follow the Storm detailed his work as CBS's South American bureau chief from 1978 to 1979, when he covered civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala," writes Cheryl Truman of the Lexington Herald-Leader, quoting from the book: "Our specialty was paramilitary: Hit the ground running, find the storm, go to the eye of it, and serve it up for dinner between Andy Griffith and I Love Lucy." (Read more)

"Because David Dick was the quintessential Kentuckian, he never forgot his roots," former WKYT-TV news director Ken Kurtz told the Lexington station. "When the time to leave CBS after 25 years or so, he and his wife Lalie were world travelers. They could have lived anywhere. They choose to come back to Kentucky." (Read or watch story) David's son, Sam Dick, is the station's evening news anchor.

UPDATE, July 24: Keith Runyon, Forum and book editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, writes in a tribute: "What distinguished Dick from others who achieved great things on TV news is that he decided to return to his roots. ...  In retirement, he began writing a series of more than a dozen books that provide readers with some of the best Kentucky stories since the late Joe Creason ... . David Dick, the sage of Plum Lick, cast a long shadow over his beloved state. He will be missed." (Read more)

Lawmakers defend, question Obama policies for managing public lands

During testimony before a House committee Thursday, Obama administration officials touted the variety of public-land uses they had implemented to boost rural economies, but a bipartisan group of lawmakers still suggested that the policies were actually hurting rural America.

"Jay Jensen, the Agriculture Department's deputy undersecretary for natural resources and environment, told a House Natural Resources subcommittee yesterday that his agency is using tools such as stewardship contracts, forest restoration initiatives and loan programs to bolster rural economies," Patrick Reis of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Jensen added that USDA's Rural Development agency has awarded more than $31 billion in development loans. New Mexico Democratic Rep. Ben Luján added that federal initiatives are helping the communities achieve both economic prosperity and conservation despite opponents claims to the contrary. Opponents of conservation initiatives "undermine Western communities by framing their struggles as a choice between economic prosperity and conservation," Luján said.

Still, some lawmakers said other White House policies were hurting rural America. South Dakota Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin took issue with what she termed an inappropriately narrow definition of what forest materials could be used for biomass energy, and said that was hurting timber communities. Utah Republican Rep. Bob Bishop criticized an endangered-species policy that he said was "preventing Westerners from making a living," Reis writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Editorial: Self-control and political reform are needed to fight obesity epidemic in rural county

Monday we excerpted the Washington Post story examining the obesity epidemic in Clay County, Kentucky. That story makes it clear that "It takes a village to raise a child," and also that it "takes a village to enable a culture where obesity can flourish," the Lexington Herald-Leader writes in an editorial. We can start examining Clay County's and Kentucky's obesity problem at personal responsibility because, after all, "Calories in/calories out is the bottom line in weight control," the newspaper says. But it argues that the epidemic runs deeper.

The Post made only passing mention of Clay County's economic woes, the Herald-Leader writes, noting that around 38 percent of its residents live below the poverty line and "Obesity is essentially another disease of the poor." The paper also notes the original story glossed over the county's history of political corruption. "It's also not much of a leap to figure that public officials bent on lining their own pockets and doing favors for helpful cronies, aren't totally absorbed in creating healthier communities, collecting taxes to support school exercise programs or better school lunches, or taking the initiative to educate citizens about diet, exercise, calorie counts and the health consequences of personal decisions. But this problem that grows out of so many other problems will damage the lives of the people affected, drain the health care system and put more stress on an already-depressed economy." (Read more)

Maryland community objects to use of inmates at horse rescue farm

A program that would have provided inmate labor to a Maryland horse-rescue farm was suspended after only a week, when neighbors and parents of youth volunteers at the farm complained they weren't informed of the program. "The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services rolled out the program at the Days End Farm Horse Rescue" in Howard County last week, Larry Carson of The Baltimore Sun reports. "But just days later, officials were apologizing for how the initiative was handled." The farm is home to 70 abused and neglected horses from all over the state.

Days End executive director Kathy Howe told Carson about 1,200 people volunteer at the farm throughout the year, including some teenagers who work for a horse rescue non-profit organization. Tammy Mirabile, who lives less than a mile from the farm and learned of the program through a local newspaper account, said if they restart the program the farm would "lose volunteers, rather than gain them." Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services officials noted the four inmates who began volunteering at the farm were non-violent offenders, but quickly acknowledged following the complaints that they erred in not informing the community.

"There was never any communication between the volunteers and the inmates," Howe told Carson. "They were a group very well supervised and were helping to maintain the land." Howe said the farm hadn't informed the community about the program because it didn't occur to her than anyone would be upset. Citing Rick Binetti, communications director for the corrections agency, Carson writes, "The hope is that in time, after community concerns are addressed, the program can be restarted." (Read more)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Financial regulatory reforms aimed at Wall Street may have big implications in rural America

President Obama's financial regulatory reform bill, passed today, is designed to fix the problems that caused the banking crisis, but it appears likely to have wide impact in other industries, including agriculture. "The bill will touch storefront check cashiers, city governments, small manufacturers, home buyers and credit bureaus, attesting to the sweeping nature of the legislation, the broadest revamp of finance rules since the 1930s," Michael M. Phillips of The Wall Street Journal reports. "In Nebraska farm country, those in the business of bringing beef from hoof to mouth are anxious, specifically about the bill's provisions that tighten rules governing derivatives." In fact, it is the "the part of the bill aimed directly at Wall Street that might end up touching most lives in rural America," Phillips writes.

Some in agriculture worry that the "coming curbs will make it riskier and pricier to do business," Phillips writes, while others "hope the changes bring competition that will redound to their benefit." Much of the focus surrounding the financial crisis has been placed on derivatives, financial instruments whose value derives from something else, such as like interest rates or heating-oil prices. Since derivatives originated in agriculture after the Civil War as crop futures, many in agribusiness are worried what effects the bill will have. (WSJ graphic)
"When they create a new regulator, it really scares us," Nate Gengenbach, vice president of commercial and agricultural lending at Five Points Bank in Hastings, Neb., told Phillips. "The new law requires most derivatives transactions be standardized, traded on exchanges, just like corporate stocks, and funneled through clearinghouses to protect against default," Phillips writes. Some predict these restrictions aimed at big players will have large effects on small farmers, while others say the regulation will push "money from the private market to the exchanges and creating more competition that  will benefit farmers." (Read more)

Doubt cast on ethanol incentive; top producer suggests switching aid to industry's infrastructure

The fight to extend federal tax breaks for ethanol could get tougher because of a Congressional Budget Office report and the leading producer's suggestion that tax breaks be dropped in favor of help in expanding the fuel's distribution network.

"As Midwestern lawmakers push to extend ethanol credits due to expire at the end of this year, Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) indicated they may not be able to do so without a fight," due to the Congressional Budget Office's report critical of the cost of biofuel tax credits, Allison Winter of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "Bingaman said yesterday that a blenders' tax credit for ethanol should not be 'reflexively' extended."

CBO reported it costs taxpayers $1.78 to reduce gasoline consumption by one gallon using corn ethanol and $3 per gallon with cellulosic ethanol, and "Bingaman criticized the 45-cents-per-gallon blenders' credit for ethanol, known as the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit," Winter writes. Bingaman said before deciding to extend the credit, lawmakers should weigh the issue carefully, including its "very high cost to taxpayers," energy benefits, production mandates and market prices. In a statement he explained, "This report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office provides further evidence that our nation's biofuels tax incentives might not be appropriately calibrated."

The Renewable Fuels Association said the report took ethanol incentives out of context. "It may seem penny-wise, but would be pound-foolish to dismiss the benefits of current biofuels in light of the havoc wrought by our dependence on fossil fuels," RFA President Bob Dinneen told Winter. "Analyzing American energy policy cannot occur in a vacuum."(Read more, subscription required)

The nation's leading ethanol maker, Poet, split with the RFA and allied groups and proposed phasing out the subsidies and replacing them with tax credits for installing blender pumps and building biofuel pipelines. Poet CEO Jeff Broin said, "With a blender pump in every neighborhood and a flex-fuel vehicle in every garage, ethanol can compete against oil without the tax incentive." Allison Winter of Environment & Energy News explains, "The plan calls for all automobiles sold in the United States to be flex-fuel vehicles that could accommodate fuel that is up to 85 percent ethanol. Most gasoline now has a 10 percent ethanol blend." Poet was joined by other producers in Growth Energy, a lobby that represents 30 percent of U.S. ethanol production. (Read more, subscription required)

Main rural-health lobby objects to exclusion from panel that will redefine medically underserved areas

The National Rural Health Association is objecting to its exclusion from a committee that that will redefine Health Professional Shortage Areas and Medically Underserved Areas, designations that help steer federal money. "Because nearly all federal health care funding to rural America is tied to the HPSA/MUA definition, such an omission severely undermines the legitimacy of the committee," the lobbying group said in an e-mail urging members and supporters to ask for the appointment of an NRHA representative to the panel.

Map shows in blue the Texas counties now designated as short of health professionals. (Click on map for larger image.)
NRHA said the designations determine funding for "the National Health Service Corps, rural health clinics, community health centers, the Indian Health Service Scholarship Program," and Medicare reimbursement bonuses, as well as "broadband funding and eligibility for virtually every rural health grant." It said "Some additions to this list are expected to be made soon," and asked recipients to contact HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield at or 301-443-2216.

Feds, even USDA, say use of antibiotics in animals leads to drug-resistant diseases in humans

"There is a clear link between the use of antibiotics in livestock and drug resistance in humans, President Barack Obama's administration says, a position sharply at odds with agribusiness interests." That's the pithy report from Philip Brasher, Washington correpsondent from The Des Moines Register, on yesterday's hearing before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, held in the wake of the Food and Drug Administration's suggestion to ban the use of most antibiotics as promoters of growth in hogs, chickens and other livestock. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D.-N.Y., has a bill (HR 1549) to do that, but administrative regulation seems more likely.

"Even the Agriculture Department, which livestock producers have traditionally relied on to advocate for their interests, backed the idea of a link between animal use of antibiotics and human health," Brasher notes, citing testimony from USDA's chief veterinarian. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also weighed in, buttressing the argument that overuse of antibiotics creates resistant strains of disease in animals and humans. Richard Carnevale of the Animal Health Institute, a lobby for animal-antibiotic manufacturers, said there is "no unequivocal evidence" of a connection between them and human drug resistance. (Read more) For a detailed report on the issue, see this week's edition of the Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse.

Electric firms' demand for air-pollution relief may spell doom for climate bill limited to power plants

Closed-door meetings between environmentalists and electric utility executives, which may determine the fate of climate change legislation in the Senate, have made little progress at this writing. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s "top energy aide, Chris Miller, nudged the small group to the bargaining table earlier this month in the hope they could resolve more than a decade of dispute on Clean Air Act regulations and reach agreement on a first-ever cap on greenhouse gas emissions," Darren Samuelsohn and Coral Davenport report for Politico. "So far, sources close to the talks said, the two sides are holding firm in their demands."

A chief conflict is the power companies' ongoing request for "relief from the air-pollution rules as a price of entry into negotiations if they are going to accept a mandatory carbon limit that won’t apply to other industries," the reporters write. Environmental groups have held firm in their disapproval of such an agreement. "While Senate staff are not in the room, a failure to reach agreement among this critical subset of interests may drive Reid to drop greenhouse gas caps altogether from the bill headed to the floor in less than two weeks," Politico reports.

"I'm sure people throw everything on the table," League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski told Politico. "But we’ve made it damn clear ... that there are no trade-offs of any regulation of any [conventional] pollutants." Reid hopes to fold recommendations from the talks into the utility-only bill he plans to unveil in two weeks, but other sides are preparing to blame the other if the discussions go nowhere. "The utility deal will only work if EEI strips EPA of their powers to [conduct] the fierce regulation they are doing in several sectors," an environmentalist tracking the process told Politico. "This will put the votes of the liberal Democrats against the moderate Republicans. This is untenable." (Read more)

Mine boss ordered methane monitor deactivated weeks before deadly explosion

UPDATE, Aug. 3: Massey told survivors of the blast that methane monitors "weren't disabled in a key section of the coal mine," Kris Maher reports for The Wall Street Journal.

UPDATE, July 16: The incident reported Thursday by NPR was not an isolated one at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, former employees tell NPR. Mangers repeatedly used the same false justification about mine safety law allowing a machine to be operated for 24 hours without its monitor as long as the operator took frequent hand-held methane readings to justify the action, Howard Berkes reports. One miner, who spent 13 years at Upper Big Branch, told NPR he'd seen monitors disabled in this same way as the one disabled just weeks before the April explosion 50 to 60 times. "Based on our understanding," Badge Humphries, who represents the Massey shareholder groups that filed the suit against the organization, told Berkes, "this information, which appears to be misinformation, this policy … was promulgated by the management of Upper Big Branch. Where it came from above that remains to be seen." (Read more)

Three weeks before the explosion that killed 29 coal miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., a mine supervisor ordered an electrician to disable a methane monitor on a continuous mining machine because the monitor repeatedly shut down the machine, National Public Radio reports. "Everybody was getting mad because the continuous miner kept shutting off because there was methane," Ricky Lee Campbell, a 24-year-old coal shuttle driver and roof bolter who witnessed the incident, told Howard Berkes of NPR. "So, they shut the section down and the electrician got into the methane detector box and rewired it so we could continue to run coal."

Methane monitors are mounted to the 30-foot-long continuous miners because methane released as the machine cuts into rock and coal can be ignited by sparks from the cutting of rock. The continuous miner with the disabled monitor "was working in an entryway about three miles from the location of the deadly explosion in April," Berkes reports. Two other witnesses confirmed the incident but asked not to be named "because they fear for their jobs, their families and their futures," Berkes writes. Campbell was fired by Massey and has filed a whistleblower claim against the company based on other complaints about safety.

Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater did not deny the incident but said, "The methane monitor was bypassed in order to move the miner from the area that did not have roof support to a safer area for repair." Also, "Two of the witnesses say they don't believe excessive methane gas forced the monitor to shut down the mining machine," Berkes reports. "They believe the monitor was simply malfunctioning, which is a common problem underground." Several miners told NPR they believed it was legal to disable a monitor and still operate the machine for 24 hours if the operator carries a hand-held detector and check readings every 15 minutes. However, Edward Clair, who retired last year after 22 years as the chief attorney for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told NPR the practice is "not permitted, and I think it is clearly in violation of the law." (Read more)

Difficult conditions inside the Upper Big Branch mine have slowed investigators, Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal reports, which may delay a definitive report on the accident till year end. Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine-safety official who was appointed as special investigator into the explosion by West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, said "investigation teams have encountered dangerous roof conditions that had to be repaired, as well as water gathering in locations that hampered traveling in the mine," Maher writes. (Read more)

Could fate of W.Va. surface mine permit signal the future of mountaintop-removal coal mining?

In 2007 the Army Corps of Engineers approved what would be one of the largest mountaintop-removal coal mines, but the permit has come under fire from the Obama administration, which has threatened to halt or significantly scale back the project. Now the Spruce 1 mine near Blair, W.Va. (MapQuest image), "is seen as a bellwether by conservation groups and the coal industry," Erik Eckholm of The New York Times reports. "The fate of the project could also have national reverberations, affecting Democratic Party prospects in coal states." Federal officials have said their final decision would not be announced until late this year.

"Spruce 1 is a test of whether the EPA is going to follow through with its promises," Bill Price, West Virginia ndirector of environmental justice for the Sierra Club, told Eckholm. "If the administration sticks to its guns, mountaintop removal is going to be severely curtailed." Coal-company officials counter than politics, not science, is leading the administration's policy. "After years of study, with the company doing everything any agency asked, and three years after a permit was issued, the EPA now wants to stop Spruce 1," Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told Eckholm. "It’s political; the only thing that has changed is the administration."

Spruce 1 started as the largest mountaintop-removal proposal ever, before being scaled back to 2,278 acres (shaded on map) from 3,113 to gain initial approval from the Army corps, which regulates discharges into streams. "EPA has already riled the coal companies by tightening procedures for issuing new mining permits and imposing stronger stream protections," Eckholm writes. "But environmental groups were worried in June, when the agency approved a curtailed mountaintop plan in another site in Logan County." (Click on maps for larger images)

If Spruce 1's permit is pulled or scaled back, the industry and locals who support mountaintop removal mining worry what that might mean for the region's economy. "Spruce 1 is extremely important to all of southern West Virginia because if this permit is pulled back, every mine site is going to be vulnerable to having its permits pulled," James Milan, manager of Walker Machinery in Logan, which sells gargantuan Caterpillar equipment that is used in mountaintop mining, told Eckholm. (Read more)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rural counties' population grew much more slowly than the rest of the nation from 2000 to 2009

Population growth in rural America has lagged far behind the rest of the country over the last decade, the Daily Yonder's analysis of Census Bureau county estimates shows. "The nation’s total population increased 9.1 percent between 2000 and 2009, a total of 25.5 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau," Roberto Gallardo writes for the Yonder. "The population of the nation’s 2,038 rural counties increased by just 2.9 percent in the decade." Exurban counties increased by 13.1 percent and urban counties increased by 10.1 percent. (Yonder map; click for larger image)

Population change across rural America during the decade was far from uniform. "The rural Midwest largely lost population during the decade. These predominantly agricultural counties may be losing people because agriculture is increasingly mechanized — and other jobs are not there to attract or retain residents," Gallardo writes. "Meanwhile, however, almost every rural county in Washington state gained population. In fact, the entire Mountain West gained residents in the 2000s." In 2000, 17.3 percent of the nation’s population lived in counties classified as rural, but just 16.4 percent lived in such counties by the end of 2009. Rural America reflected the rest of the country by gaining black and Hispanic population while losing white population, but the rural changes were smaller in each category than those elsewhere. (Read more)

Administration announces looser requirements to get bonuses for using electronic health records

Last month we reported many hospitals said the initial rules proposed by the Obama administration for stimulus money to encourage adopting electronic medical records were too strict, especially for rural hospitals. Those pleas appear to have been heard; the Department of Health and Human Services announced a scaled back final version of the eligibility rules yesterday. The program could provide doctors and hospitals "as much as $27 billion over the next 10 years to buy equipment to computerize patients’ medical records," reports Robert Pear of The New York Times.

The initial rules would have required doctors and hospitals to meet at least 23 criteria. The new proposal would have doctors meet 15 specified requirements, plus five chosen from a list of 10 objectives. Hospitals would have to meet 14 requirements, plus five chosen from a list of 10 goals. "A doctor can receive up to $44,000 under Medicare and $63,750 under Medicaid, while a hospital can receive millions of dollars, depending on its size," for meeting the criteria, Pear writes. "To meet the new standards, doctors will have to transmit 40 percent of prescriptions electronically." The original proposal called for 75 percent.

Dr. Donald M. Berwick, who was sworn in Monday as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, told Pear that electronic health records would lead to "better, smoother care, more reliable care." Dr. David Blumenthal, the national coordinator for health information technology admitted the administration was "delaying some of the more ambitious requirements," but characterized the new standards as "ambitious but achievable" and said they would put doctors "on an escalator" toward full adoption of electronic records. (Read more)

The announcement was still met with some trepidation in the rural health community. "Some of our [larger urban] hospitals are in really good shape," Dr. W. Stephen Love, president and chief executive of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, told Dave Michaels of The Dallas Morning News, but noted for "some of the smaller hospitals and rural hospitals in North Texas, it's going to be expensive and it's also going to be very time-consuming." (Read more)

New estate-tax measure would phase in exemption

A bipartisan estate-tax measure backed by the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union would set the federal tax rate on estates at 35 percent, with a $5 million exemption that would be phased in over 10 years. "That phase-in is a change from previous legislation introduced by the two senators and is meant to reduce the short-term cost," Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network reports. President Obama has proposed a 45 percent rate with a $3.5 million exemption.

Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona filed the measure as an amendment to the proposed Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010. "The plan would also give a choice to estates this year between the current rules – no estate tax, but a capital gains tax imposed when the inherited assets are sold – and the estate tax rates that would be in effect under the Kyl-Lincoln proposal," Meyer reports.

The tax-cut package passed in 2001 gradually reduced the federal estate tax to the point that it it was eliminated this year, but Congress made the package expire to limit its long-term costs. If the law is left unchanged, estates larger than $1 million would be taxed next year at 55 percent. (Read more)

Mine safety bill prompts another partisan divide

UPDATE 7/20: While White House leaders rush to move the mine safety bill through the House of Representatives, Senate Democrats have no plans to even introduce similar legislation before the fall. "The reason is clear: Senate Democrats need at least some Republicans to pass their bill, but GOP leaders are opposed to moving mine safety reforms quickly," Mike Lillis of The Hill reports. "Instead, they want to wait for the results of an investigation into April’s deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia — results that won’t likely arrive this year." (Read more)

Mine Safety and Health Administration officials and House Democrats called Tuesday for swift passage of new mine-safety legislation, in response to the April disaster that killed 29 West Virginia miners, but Republican lawmakers and the coal industry criticized the agency for not using the power it already has. MSHA boss Joe Main "said the bill would help his agency crack down on renegade coal operators and 'make the world a better place for miners,'" Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, D-W.Va., said she is working on her own bill because she thinks the Democratic measure would increase mine operator appeals of enforcement actions.

James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal summarizes: "The Democrats' measure would streamline the system under which mines with persistently poor safety records are monitored and made to follow the law. Maximum civil and criminal penalties for safety violations would be further increased; mine operators who alerted workers to the presence of federal inspectors would be subject to felony charges and prison; payment of penalties in a timely manner would be required; MSHA would have the power to close mines and subpoena documents and testimony; and miners who report safety violations would be protected and retaliation against them would be a felony." (Read more)

Bruce Watzman, a vice president and lobbyist for the National Mining Association, said that "trying to force safety improvements through punitive measures fails to acknowledge the complexities of today's mining environment." The comments came at a House Committee on Education and Labor hearing. Witnesses from the administration, labor, industry and academia testified. The legislation would update standards for control of explosive coal dust in underground mines and would require independent investigations by a National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health panel of all mining accidents involving three or more deaths.

"Supporters said the measure is aimed at beefing up the controversial 'pattern of violations' enforcement process, defending miners who speak out against unsafe practices, and generally giving MSHA more tools to protect mine workers," Ward writes. During the hearing Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., announced he would rename the legislation the Robert C. Byrd Miner Safety and Health Act of 2010 to honor the late West Virginia Democratic senator.  "Republican lawmakers objected to language in the bill that broadens its impact beyond mining to other industries regulated by a sister agency, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration," Ward writes. (Read more)

Some universities selling dairy herds to cut costs

University agriculture programs across the company are selling parts or all of their dairy herds to cut costs as operating budgets continue to shrink and the price of maintaining the herds rises. Tom Vogelmann, dean of the University of Vermont's College of Agriculture and Life Science, said it plans to sell its 255 Holsteins and have faculty do their work on private farms that could be paid $20,000 a year for three years, Lisa Rathke of The Associated Press reports. "The farmers would benefit from the added income, while researchers would have access to more cows, possibly in more modern facilities," Rathke writes. (Burlington Free Press photo by Glenn Russell)

"We're really excited because we feel that this is really a new model that land-grant institutions can work toward," Vogelmann told Rathke. The University of Kentucky, also a land-grant school, plans to auction part of its herd to reduce the number of cows from 140 to around 100 by September, Rathke reports. Other schools are looking into combining herds with other nearby universities. Rutgers University in New Jersey combined its herd with one at the University of Delaware eight years ago. Kentucky planned to move its herd to a facility at Eastern Kentucky University, about 30 minutes away, but funding ran out. The University of Minnesota and Michigan State University each plan to sell one of their three herds.

Jim Linn, vice president of the American Dairy Science Association, said "a minority of schools are discontinuing their herds but all institutions are looking at the costs of keeping their animals," Rathke writes. Vermont plans to keep 65 cows at its farm for research and its hands-on Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management program, but administrators say the new system will actually increase the number of cows to which the faculty has access. "Before we were sort of limited to 255 animals for research trials," Vogelmann told Rathke. "But if you look at an hour's driving radius around here, that number is multiplied ten-fold." (Read more)

Legal 'white dog' whiskey gaining popularity

White whiskey, no longer a solely rural phenomenon, may be more popular than ever. "It’s hard to know what to expect when you first encounter white whiskey," Anne Brockhoff writes for the Kansas City Star. "It’s clear, but it tastes nothing like grain alcohol or even vodka. Some of it is bottled at a whiskey-like 40 percent alcohol by volume, but there’s at least one (Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1) that’s a high-octane 62.5 percent alcohol by volume." While moonshine is by definition always illegal, many legal varieties of white whiskey are still being marketed as such, Brockhoff notes.

In his new book Chasing the White Dog Max Watman "rides along with law enforcement agents, befriends a former crackhead, sits through trials, builds his own still, delves into the craft distilling movement and learns to drive a race car," Brockhoff writes. "He finds urban criminals selling vast quantities of vile hooch, the occasional 'rarist' making old-fashioned liquor up in the hills and passionate hobbyists, some who’ve built their operations into viable, legal businesses." The book, Brockhoff writes, is a fun read that "perfectly captures a growing fascination with white whiskey — a fascination happily and legally now being fed by Death’s Door, Tuthilltown Spirits, Buffalo Trace and other distillers."

"We didn’t start out to make corn whiskey," distiller and co-owner of New York's Tuthilltown Spirits Ralph Erenzo told Brockhoff of his distillery's Hudson New York Corn Whiskey. "We started out to make an aged spirit, but when we tasted this, we thought it was so extraordinary, so new and different." Part of white whiskey's appeal is its use in cocktails, Brockhoff writes. "This (trend) has some legs because it’s a real expression of whiskey," Watman said. "It certainly has a place along the whiskey spectrum." (Read more)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Employers pass up tax incentives to create jobs in some rural counties due to poor health status

For decades, rural areas attracted jobs with relatively low wages, taxes and land costs. Globalization of the economy has made the wage advantage much less important, and now poor health in rural areas has become a major additional consideration for employers.

Wages, taxes and land costs are relatively high in Chapel Hill, N.C., and surrounding Orange County, but some employers have decided to stay and expand there rather than take advantage of incentives offered to locate in rural North Carolina counties because those counties have lower health status and are likely to cost the employers more in health-insurance premiums and payouts, says Dr. Brian Caveney of the occupational and environmental medicine faculty at the Duke University Medical Center.

Caveney, who also has degrees in law and public health, made the point today as he spoke to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce's annual Economic Summit, a gathering of the state's business leaders, on the costs of obese employees. The employers who have chosen to stick to Orange County think its relatively high health status "counteracts even the tax-incentive structures that are on the table in some of the other counties," he said.

Caveney presented a wealth of data, including one graph showing that employers pay more in heralth and workers' compensation costs for workers who are obese than for those who smoke, largely because the more serious health effects of smoking are manifested later in life, often after the employee retires and becomes a Medicare beneficiary. He also cited risks of obesity that are not well known, such as more susceptibility to pesticides and other neurotoxins, and less heat tolerance.

Rural phone companies that took the broadband plunge dislike grants that float competition

The economic stimulus package designated $7.2 billion to provide affordable broadband to unserved or underserved areas, with $2.5 billion of that going to the Rural Utilities Service in the Agriculture Department. Now New London, Mo., is becoming the center of an emerging conflict between RUS and rural telecommunication companies, Nancy Jorgensen writes in the Daily Yonder.

Ralls County Electric got a $9.5 million grant and matching loan from RUS to provide broadband service to five counties, but the service area includes New London, which already has broadband access. TDS Telecommunications Corp., which  provides 1.5 MB to 10 MB broadband starting at $29.95 per a month to New London residents, says it challenges all applications that would compete with existing TDS territories and is the leading challenger of stimulus awards.

"We filed the most challenges of any telecommunications company in the U.S.—over 130," Andrew Petersen, director of external affairs and corporate communication for TDS, told Jorgensen. "Funding duplicative networks is not a good use of federal dollars and not what Congress intended." The company got broadband stimulus grants in Michigan and Alabama.

"About 1,300 small telecommunications companies, both member- and family-owned, serve rural America," Jorgensen writes. Many of those companies, most much smaller than TDS, are worried that the stimulus may hurt them because they have already invested millions in broadband development. "We’re all for bringing broadband to rural America," Bill Rohde, manager of Mark Twain Rural Telephone Co. in Hurdland, Mo,. told Jorgensen. "But we don’t think our government should provide tax dollars to companies that would compete with us. Costs here are too high, and subscribers too few to justify it." Now Rhode feels RUS, which "brought service to rural areas where for-profit companies would not go, and now RUS is undercutting the successful telecoms it helped create," Jorgensen writes. (Read more)

Lawsuit in Idaho federal court alleges potato growers are colluding to drive up prices

A lawsuit filed in a federal court in June alleges that potato grower cooperatives have engaged in "classic cartel behavior" to drive up prices across the country, Kathleen Kreller of the Idaho Statesman reports. Defendants include the United Potato Growers of America, the United Potato Growers of Idaho and other growers in the state. "Each defendant knew that it could not fix prices by itself and the supply could only be restrained by collective action," the complaint said. United Potato Growers spokeswoman Barb Shelley told Kreller the cooperatives aren't breaking the law and are just humble farmers.

The complaint alleges that in September 2004, Albert Wada, of Wada Farms, and Keith Cornelison, another defendant, called a meeting of 23 growers to discuss how to 'curb production' and 'boost prices,'" Kreller writes. The growers at that meeting went on to found the United Potato Growers, which controls 60 percent of the fresh potatoes produced in Idaho and 25 percent of the national market. Lead attorney Joseph Pizzirusso contends the growers violated the Capper-Volstead Act of 1922, which exempts agricultural cooperatives from antitrust regulations under limited circumstances, "by conspiring with non-growers, such as packing warehouses and a dehydrating plant, to reduce the supply and increase the price," Kreller writes.

Shelley countered, "We view [the complaint] as an attack on our potato farmers who work every day to grow potatoes and to provide the country with an adequate supply of potatoes at a fair price." Pizzirusso said his law firm Hausfeld LLP, which announced a preliminary $25 million settlement of antitrust, price-fixing allegations involving the processed egg industry earlier in June, can show more than a dozen ways the growers are violating the Capper-Volstead Act. (Read more)

Agribusiness seems satisfied with financial regulation bill; backers say it could curb crop price spikes

Supporters of the financial regulation bill before the Senate say it will not only help reform the country's financial crisis but also control spikes in grain and food prices. "Regulations would create more transparency in the buying and selling of derivatives and discourage speculation by imposing capital and margin requirements on swap dealers," Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "Grain traders such as Cargill Inc. and other 'end users' who use the markets to control their risks would be exempted from new capital and margin requirements."

Discouraging speculation in commodities markets "should at least get us back to the point where there will be a little more predictability," Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, told Brasher. Not everyone agrees what caused the spike in food prices in 2008. Most believe it was either "Wall Street speculation in derivatives that are tied to commodities or the combination of soaring energy prices and tight grain supplies," Brasher writes. Analysis released recently by the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said "the weight of evidence clearly suggests" that index funds did not cause the commodity price increases.

The study warns "excessive new regulations could rob markets of needed liquidity," Brasher writes. Spikes in prices don't always hurt farmers; they can benefit from spikes, too. "Volatility provides opportunity," Don Elsbernd, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, told Brasher. "But things got a little carried away in 2008 and we're still paying for that." For the most part agribusiness interests seem satisfied with the bill, Brasher writes, and are at least not fighting it. (Read more)

Midwest communities question investment in Peabody coal plant as its price tag soars

Dozens of communities in eight Midwest states are questioning the cost of Peabody Energy's Prairie State coal-fired power plant in Southern Illinois, as projected electricity rates continue to rise far beyond Peabody's initial promises. The price tag of the facility, which will be the largest new source of carbon dioxide in the United States in a quarter-century, has doubled to $4.4 billion, Michael Hawthorne of the Chicago Tribune reports. Peabody touts the plant as environmentally friendly because it will be build next to a coal mine, eliminating emissions from coal trucks and trains.

"Prairie State will be a major source of air pollution, but for the amount of electricity it generates, it will be cleaner than most of the nation's existing coal plants, some of which date to the 1940s and '50s," Hawthorne writes. Costs from possible climate regulation by Congress or EPA, which weren't accounted for in the initial plan, could further increase the cost. "Communities are locked into 28-year contracts that will require higher electricity rates to cover the construction overruns, documents and interviews show," Hawthorne writes. "Municipal officials told the Tribune they expect costs to soar even higher before the plant begins operating next year."

"We don't know yet if we've been sold a bill of goods," Ray Pawlak, a Geneva alderman who was one of the few Chicago-area officials to vote against the project, told Hawthorne. "But why should we take a risk like this?" Phillip "Doc" Mueller, the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency's vice president for government affairs and management services, qualified projects of massive rate increases by noting the Prairie State facility will be just part of the IMEA's energy portfolio. "We still feel good about our decision," Krieger told Hawthorne.  (Read more)

EPA again proposes cuts to biofuels mandate, proposes far lower goal for cellulosic ethanol

For the second straight year the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed cutting the ambitious nationwide biofuels mandate established in the 2007 energy bill. In releasing its 2011 percentage standards for the four fuel categories that qualify for the "renewable fuel standard" program, EPA gave "cellulosic biofuels a minuscule share of the mandate, at hundredths of a percent of the total fuel share," Allison Winter of Environment & Energy Daily reports. The proposal calls for 5 million to 17.1 million gallons for cellulosic biofuels, far below the 2007 bill's goal of 150 million gallons for the fuel by 2011.

"The proposed numbers are significantly below the targets set for cellulosic biofuels in the energy bill -- illustrating continued hurdles for the industry to produce affordable, commercial-scale quantities of the fuel," Winter writes. EPA said it would continue to evaluate the market before it finalizes the cellulosic standard. "Overall, EPA remains optimistic that the commercial availability of cellulosic biofuel will continue to grow in the years ahead," the agency said.

The biofuel industry has repeatedly called for an increase the allowable blend of ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent, a move which is expected to come in the near future but has been delayed by EPA at least twice. "We would like to see an expansion of the market overall; that is key to driving the investment for cellulosic and developing that as an industry," Chris Thorne of biofuels industry group Growth Energy told Winter. (Read more, subscription required)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Study says need for jobs often outweighs a community's support for environmental regulation

Unemployment and population growth may have a far greater effect than pollution on a community's attitudes toward environmental regulation, reports the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Its new study, published in the journal Rural Sociology, suggests why many Gulf Coast communities continued to support of offshore drilling after the BP oil blowout and why Appalachian communities support mountaintop-removal coal mining, says a UNH news release.

"Our research shows that people who live in rural areas with high unemployment rates are less likely to support environmental regulations." Larry Hamilton, professor of sociology, senior fellow at the Carsey and lead author of the study, said in the release. "People living in areas with high unemployment rates may perceive environmental rules as a threat to their economic livelihood." Researchers surveyed more than 7,800 people in 19 rural counties of nine states, divided into seven regions: the Rocky Mountains, Pacific Northwest, Northeast, Midwestern farm country, Appalachia, Mississippi Delta, and Alabama’s Black Belt.

Rural areas with high rates of population growth were more likely to support increased environmental regulation. "In such places, population change could be altering the environment in visible ways and make it seem more in need of protection," Hamilton said. The study also supported previous research in revealing Republicans, older respondents, and those who frequently attend religious services were less likely to favor conservation for future generations, while women, nonminority, and better-educated respondents were more likely to favor conservation.

Still, the rural areas were far from uniform. "For example, in our Rocky Mountain counties, the growing economy based on recreation and natural amenities gives people less reason to perceive conflict between jobs and conservation," Hamilton said. "In Appalachia, on the other hand, coal-mining interests have cast debates over mountaintop-removal mining as a choice between jobs and conservation." (Read more)

Feds shift focus on illegal immigration from raids to workplace audits, leading to more firings

The Obama administration prefers workplace audits to find undocumented workers instead of the Bush-era raids of factories and farms, and is catching more illegal immigrants — but that doesn't mean they are deported. "Over the past year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has conducted audits of employee files at more than 2,900 companies," Julia Preston of The New York Times reports. "The agency has levied a record $3 million in civil fines so far this year on businesses that hired unauthorized immigrants, according to official figures. Thousands of those workers have been fired, immigrant groups estimate."

"The audits force businesses to fire every suspected illegal immigrant on the payroll— not just those who happened to be on duty at the time of a raid — and make it much harder to hire other unauthorized workers as replacements," Preston writes. Mark K. Reed, president of Border Management Strategies, a Tucson consulting firm that advises companies across the country on immigration law, explained, "Instead of hundreds of agents going after one company, now one agent can go after hundreds of companies. And there is no drama, no trauma, no families being torn apart, no handcuffs."

While Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, characterized the policy as "a far more effective enforcement tool" than the Bush era raids, Republican leaders have criticisms. "Even if discovered, illegal aliens are allowed to walk free and seek employment elsewhere," Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, told Preston. "This lax approach is particularly troubling, at a time when so many American citizens are struggling to find jobs."

Some employers say the crackdown has left them short of workers in low-wage jobs like farm work that Americans continue to shun despite the recession, Preston writes. Immigrant advocates say they are frustrated by the increase in enforcement. "It would be easier to fight if it was a big raid," Pramila Jayapal, executive director of OneAmerica, a group in Seattle, told Preston "But this is happening everywhere and often." (Read more)

Kentucky county ground zero in obesity epidemic?

Obesity in America is at an all-time high, and some of the poorest rural counties are among the leaders. In Clay County, in southeastern Kentucky, the adult obesity rate has been estimated as high as 52 percent, more than twice the national average of 24 percent, Wil Haygood of The Washington Post reports. Photo by Linda Davidson: Nurse practitioner Suzie Smith checks Britney Robinson, the story's main example.

Jill Day, a Clay County native and assistant professor of human development and kinesiology at Central Kentucky's Campbellsville University, conducted the first study to examine the underlying causes of obesity in southeastern Kentucky. She reckoned that perhaps a third of children in Manchester were overweight or obese, but of the 277 students whose parents allowed them to participate in the study, about half fit that criteria. But Day said the grim statistics are even more discouraging when you consider the reluctance to discuss the issue.

"It's a fear of knowing," she told Haygood. "A fear of knowing the truth. The families believe it's really not that bad. They believe the time to weigh yourself is when you go to the doctor. But they aren't going to the doctor!" As for the principal cause of Clay County's epidemic, Day said, "I hate to sound simplistic, but it is a lack of physical activity as well as poor eating habits." Day also points to poverty, noting the median income is about $16,000 less than the national average, and a culture that shuns walking and values fast food. Manchester has fewer than 2,000 people but has McDonald's, Wendy's, Arby's, Subway, Burger King, Long John Silver's, Lee's Famous Recipe chicken and Pizza Hut.

Haygood doesn't say where the obesity estimate of 52 percent comes from; the latest data compiled by the Kentucky Institute of Medicine and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky show that its rate in 2006-08 was 37 percent, tied for highest with a few other counties. (FHK map shows Clay in gray; the others are in purple.) Other data give Clay the lowest health status of any Kentucky county, and poor health status is a consideration for prospective employers, but the issue does not seem to be on the local public agenda. "I just don't know a lot about obesity," Manchester Mayor Carmen Lewis told Haygood. "Until you realize it, you're blinded. Then you get to an age where you suddenly say, 'Oh, my God! What have I done to myself?'" (Read more)

UPDATE 7/6: In an editorial the Lexington Herald-Leader examines the causes of the Clay County obesity epidemic outlined in the Washington Post story and concludes, "Obesity is essentially another disease of the poor." (Read more)

In Colorado, cattle ranchers' brands are victims of downturn and development

Ranches across the country have closed during the recession, but in Colorado a different facet of the livestock industry is increasingly up-for-sale: cattle brands. "In Colorado, a brand is private property that can be bought or sold. Some are priced as low as $500. Others, like a set auctioned for charity, fetch as much as $44,000," Colleen O'Connor of The Denver Post reports. "Just as the number of ranches is dwindling, so are the brands that go with them. Currently, there are 32,609 registered brands." Despite a grace period that lasted more than three years, 4,000 brands were canceled on July 1 because owners didn't pay the 2007 assessment fee. (Post photo by R.J. Sangosti of Dyekman family brand, which was first recorded in 1885 and is for sale)

"Colorado is developing its ranches," state Brand Commissioner Rick Wahlert told O'Connor. "They're being sold and subdivided, and all of a sudden, you have people who don't need brands." Other ranchers with several brands are cutting costs by selling one or two. Assessment fees have nearly doubled from $125 in 2002 to $225 today. "One reason the fee was raised is because we're a totally cash-funded agency, through inspection fees and brand-assessment fees," Wahlert explained.

"Those 4,000 or so canceled brands don't automatically hit the market, to be scooped up by intrepid seekers of brands that are historic or rare or happen to match their initials," O'Connor writes. They will be kept on the books for three years, "so it could be possible they might be reinstated," Wahlert said. Another 148 brands are currently for sale with prices varying based on demand and number of characters used. The oldest brand on the books, registered in 1884, belongs to John Sheriff of Hot Sulphur Springs, who told O'Connor he doesn't appreciate the fee increase, but has no intention of letting his brand go. (Read more)

Stimulus package boosts community wind energy

The Great Recession may have been a blessing in disguise for community wind power; the economic stimulus package shifted the economics of the local wind sector. Of about 80 wind farms that had received cash grants from the stimulus to promote renewable energy as of June 30, roughly 17 were community projects, Melinda Burns of reports. Community wind projects are more profitable for landowners because as part of their agreement to supply land for the turbines they eventually own some of them, rather than just gettign lease payments.

Cash grants, like the one set up by the stimulus package for renewable energy, have "fundamentally reshaped the federal policy landscape for wind power in general, and for community wind projects in particular," Mark Bolinger, a wind-economics researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory told Burns. Conversely, Bolinger concluded in a report for the U.S. Department of Energy that "federal tax credits for wind power, which the government has offered off and on over several decades, have been a barrier for many local investors," because "they simply don’t have enough tax liability to take advantage of them," Burns writes.

Under current law, a wind farm must begin construction this year to be eligible for the grant, but Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon has introduced legislation to extend that through 2012. "The cash grant program really does a lot to boost community wind," Bolinger told Burns. "But it’s a question of whether these projects can get their act together in time. The sector would certainly benefit if the grants were extended or made permanent. … Community wind may help farmers hang on to their farms and preserve that way of life."

While community wind is defined differently in different areas, however you define it, Bolinger said it is difficult to finance. "They’re smaller projects and are not as readily able to partner with investors who can inject tax equity, so that they can use the tax benefits," he said. "In many cases, the cash grant provides more value to the project." (Read more)