Saturday, November 16, 2013

EPA proposes to reduce corn-ethanol-in-fuel mandate by almost 10 percent

The Environmental Protection Agency wants to reduce the amount of corn-based ethanol that would be used in fuels in 2014, from about 14.4 billion gallons this year to about 13 billion, under a propose rule announced Friday. EPA will issue a final rule in the spring.

The rule would reduce the Renewable Fuels Standard for "virtually all biofuels," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Although EPA does not set a corn-based ethanol number, it has proposed an overall RFS biofuels volume of 15.21 billion gallons, including 17 million gallons for cellulosic biofuels, 1.28 billion gallons for biomass diesel and 2.2 billion gallons for advanced biofuels."

Neeley writes, "The EPA announcement is the culmination of a difficult week for the U.S. ethanol industry. It started with the release of an Associated Press investigative package of stories that the industry contends was biased against ethanol. The stories questioned whether ethanol is a 'green' enough fuel. . . . The emergence of corn-based ethanol is one of the reasons rural America has been one of the few positive economic stories in the U.S. during the recent economic downturn." (Read more)

The biofuels industry railed against the move, as summarized by Jim Lane of Biofuels Digest. The industry, and "some agriculture and energy experts," say EPA "is on shaky legal footing," partly because it is using a waiver provision that is supposed to be based on "inadequate domestic supply" of biofuels, Amana Peterka reports for Greenwire. "EPA has chosen to interpret inadequate domestic supply as entailing the distribution issues involved with the blend wall," the limit created by the widely accepted standard that a gasoline-ethanol blend should be no more than 10 percent ethanol to avoid damage to engines and other parts.

Livestock producers such as National Turkey Federation President Joel Brandenberger cheered the news: “The Renewable Fuels Standard has been affecting our members since the first RFS legislation was passed in 2005. It has disrupted the certainty in the feed supply, it has caused swings in availability of feeds, and obviously as a result of that the pricing of feed.” For a report from Brownfield Ag News, click here. For a fresh explainer from Brad Plumer of The Washington Post, go here. For more background on the issue, here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

TVA closing eight coal burners in Kentucky and Alabama, converting two to natural gas

"The Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the nation’s five biggest users of coal for electricity generation, said Thursday it would close down eight coal-fired power units with 3,300 megawatts of capacity," Steven Mufson reports for The Washington Post. Closures include "all five coal-burning units at the Colbert plant in Tuscumbia, Ala., one of two remaining units at the Widows Creek plant in Stevenson, Ala., and two of three units at the Paradise plant in Drakesboro, Ky.," Travis Loller reports for The Associated Press. More reductions are expected in the next few years. (Photo by Valley Watch: Paradise plant on Green River in Muhlenberg County)

"The Kentucky units will be replaced by a natural gas plant, but more than 200 of the 400 jobs there will be affected," Loller reports. CEO Bill Johnson said the changes are needed because power demand is down and environmental regulations are becoming stricter." Johnson said TVA hopes to "reduce coal to just 20 percent of the utility's portfolio over the next decade. It currently stands at 38 percent." (Read more)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is seeking re-election, lobbied to keep the Paradise plant's three coal burners going. Johnson told Mufson, “Senator McConnell did what his constituents would expect him to, advocate on their behalf and on behalf of their state. . . . Our objective is to make the best decision for the entire region, and that’s what we did.” (Read more) McConnell's office emphasized that the plant at Paradise, site of John Prine's famous song, will stay open and one unit will keep burning coal.

Latest state on the not-so-hit parade of weak oil and gas regulation is New Mexico

The U.S. oil and gas boom has put more attention on regulation of the industry, done almost entirely by state agencies that tend to be friendly to the industry. The latest example is in New Mexico, where regulators have recorded 3,691 violations since 2010, but haven't fined any of the drillers or operators for the infractions "because the state Oil Conservation Division hasn't had the authority to levy fines since March 2009," Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. "So when inspectors find a problem, there's not much they can do except ask the driller to fix it." (EnergyWire chart)

The problems stems from 2009 case when "the state Supreme Court agreed with a gas drilling company, Marbob Energy Corp., that the oil and gas agency lacked legal authority to issue fines," Soraghan writes. "To levy fines, the court said, the law requires the agency to ask the state attorney general to file a lawsuit in the county where the violation occurred. The agency hasn't referred any cases to the attorney general since the ruling, and the attorney general hasn't filed any cases."

In their ruling, the New Mexico justices said that the agency might well need to levy fines. At the time, agency Director Mark Fesmire told The Associated Press that the ruling left the New Mexico oil and gas industry 'basically unregulated'," Soraghan notes. "The Oil Conservation Division does have more severe penalties available. It can revoke a company's bond in some circumstances, which prevents it from operating. The department can also refuse to issue new permits to companies that aren't in compliance. But that's considered a drastic step and has not happened to an operational company since 2009." (Read more)

Rural Nebraska music students use special technology to get instruction from N.Y. music school

Band students in 11 rural schools in Nebraska are learning to perfect their playing with instruction from teachers more than 1,000 miles away at the Manhattan School of Music in New York, Matt McFarland reports for The Washington Post. The distance-learning program, created in 1996, has become most popular in Nebraska, going from two classes during the 2009-10 school year "to include 1,800 individual sessions this school year," said Christianne Orto, the dean of distance learning and recording art. (Post photo: Sophomore Kelsey Green receives a clarinet lesson from a New York instructor)

Students and teachers "connect on video conferencing machines made by Polycom," McFarland writes. "They are built with an omnidirectional microphone, which cuts out background noise. The high sound quality is essential for instructors and students to be aware of dynamics and pitch. Popular video conferencing software, such as Google Hangouts and Skype, can’t offer the same sound quality. Instructors can also zoom in with an HD camera attached to the cart. That gives them an up-close look at a student’s technique."

"The classes are the outgrowth of 2006 state legislation which gave schools better equipment for distance learning," McFarland writes. "The machines from Polycom — which can be wheeled from room to room — generally cost about $15,000. Schools also receive $1,000 per class to cover the cost of instruction with the Manhattan School of Music. The money is drawn from the state lottery, and the legislation financing it extends through the 2014-15 school year." (Read more)

Mitchell, S.D., and Walla Walla, Wash., recognized for using technology to revive their economies

The Intelligent Community Forum, a non-profit organization that describes itself as "a think tank that studies the economic and social development of the 21st Century community," has named its Smart 21 Communities for 2014, which recognizes communities "for their investment in broadband connectivity and their innovative use of Internet applications," Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. Only four of the 21 are in the U.S., and two of those four are rural -- Mitchell, S. D. pop. 15,000, and Walla Walla, Wash., pop. 32,000. The list will be narrowed to seven in January, and in June the Intelligent Community of the Year will be named.

Mitchell Corn Palace (
"Though Mitchell and Walla Walla may have smaller populations, the communities have big ideas about the role of broadband connectivity in raising the standard of living. And they’ve invested in infrastructure to help residents use digital tools to create jobs, improve education and reverse population loss," Marema writes. Both communities were seeing a sharp decrease in population, before making technological advances that encouraged people to stay.

Mitchell, which made the list last year, promotes "precision farming," using "GPS, Internet connectivity and other digital tools to control the cost of farming while increasing yields," Marema writes. "Mitchell has built a fiber-to-the-premises network that can serve every home and business in town, according to Prairie Business Magazine. Each seventh through 12th grader in Mitchell’s public schools receives a smart pad or laptop. The region has a two-year vocational school that teaches business, communications and precision farming. It also has a four-year college, Dakota Wesleyan University. The Prairie Business Magazine reports that a third of Dakota Wesleyan’s graduates stay in the area."

Whitman College students create prints for a Day
of the Dead celebration. Walla Walla's vibrant cultural
life was cited. (Walla Walla Union Bulletin photo)
Walla Walla "built a fiber-optic backbone for the area, improving the regions’ online connectivity. The network encourages new business development, and local leaders are currently working on ways to extend the network to more of the community," Marema writes. "Online tools are part of the region’s high-end wine industry, which now features 150 wineries and employs a few thousand workers, said Louis Zacharilla, also a co-founder of Intelligent Community Forum. A local-foods movement has enticed young chefs to move the area, he said, once again building on the region’s agricultural traditions in new ways." (Read more)

N.D. law school starts 1-year pilot program to interest students in practicing in rural areas

In an effort to encourage graduates to consider jobs in rural areas that are in desperate need of lawyers, the University of North Dakota School of Law has created a one-year pilot program to give students an idea of what it's like to live and work in a rural area, Ashley Marquis reports for Dakota Student, the college's student-run newspaper. If continued, "The program would offer three internships for law students to go to smaller communities in the state that have less than 15,000 people. The interns would work closely with a judge throughout the summer and into the school year." (Dakota Student photo by Chester Beltowski)

Four of the state's 53 counties have no attorneys, and 21 have three or fewer, Marquis writes. Officials hope the program allows students to "learn more about rural communities and the benefits that come from working in them as well." Brad Parrish, assistant dean of student life for the law school, told Marquis, “It will give students exposure and gain an appreciation to practice in a small community and hopefully go there when they are finished."

Gail Hagerty, a judge from the Bismarck-Mandan area, said in a university press release: “There are real legal needs out there: more oil and gas law, an increasing amount of probate matters, more crimes to deal with and more need for family law. Right now, without immediate access to legal services, it’s very difficult for people, and it can increase costs. We also need more attorneys to do indigent defense work, we need more prosecutors, and we need more new practitioners. There’s a lot of potential in rural communities.” (Read more)

Other states, such as Nebraska, Georgia, South Dakota, and Kansas, have started incentive programs to interest lawyers in taking jobs in rural areas. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Nonprofit says 72 percent of schools lack broadband speeds needed to fully use the Internet

Elliston Elementary School in rural Montana is "on the wrong side of the new digital divide in this country," Lyndsey Layton writes for The Washington Post. Although they have laptops and whiteboards, the connection isn't fast enough for the teachers and students to utilize the many facets of technology such as videos, music, graphics and interactive programs. Rural schools aren't the only ones lacking adequate broadband. According to Education Superhighway, a nonprofit dedicated to improving digital access in schools, 72 percent of public schools—in the country, suburbs and cities—do not have adequate broadband speeds to fully access the Internet.

"Wiring schools has brought the Internet to the principal's office or maybe a teacher's desk," said Evan Marwell, the chief executive of the group. "But we need to move this technology into the learning process, and that means 55 million students." President Obama proposed that all public schools get high-speed broadband and wireless Internet within the next five years, Layton writes. He said, "In a country where we expect free wi-fi with our coffee, why shouldn't we have it in our schools?"

Under Obama's plan, the Department of Education would train teachers in technology implementation for classroom instruction. It could be funded by increasing E-rate, the extra charge the government added to telephone bills in 1997. E-rate also gives schools and libraries 20 percent to 90 percent discounts on telecommunication costs. The program has already helped bring schools up to date; at the start, 14 percent of schools had Internet access, and now 99 percent have it, according to the Obama administration, Layton writes.

But schools still need faster broadband to support multiple new devices like tablets and smartphones and education applications."There are amazing learning opportunities, ability to have access to engaging digital content, ability to connect to experts and learners around the country through the smart use of technology," said Richard Culatta, director of the Education Department's Office of Educational Technology.

Broadband improvements will become even more important with the addition of the Common Core academic standards in reading and math for grades K-12—which 45 states and the District of Columbia will implement—that will require the administration of online exams. "The primary issue is bandwidth," Jacqueline King of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, said. Plans to improve the situation include increasing the E-rate budget and keeping a closer eye on what exactly schools spend the money on. "Some experts say that federal government should consider a one-time investment to bring adequate broadband capacity to all schools," Layton writes. That could cost $11 billion. (Read more)

Farm Bill has three main issues, and two differing approaches; Twitter chat on it at noon ET Friday

"These next two weeks running up to Thanksgiving are pivotal if a Farm Bill is to be salvaged this year," David Rogers reports for Politico.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas told K-101-FM in Woodward, Okla., yesterday that the House and Senate have three major areas of difference — commodity subsidies, the dairy program and food stamps, Keith Good reports for Farm Policy. On dairy, the difference is not just between the two chambers, but between farm-district Republicans and their leaders in the House.

"The House leadership doesn’t want to do supply management, which makes the dairy insurance work better," Lucas said. "The Senate insists on that. That’s a philosophical issue about supply management by the federal government." On food stamps, he said, "The Senate wants to save about $4 billion by basically making the Northeastern states that use food stamps to help pay for their citizens’ home heating oil to stay warm in the wintertime to pay more. The Senate essentially just doesn’t want to make any changes in food stamps. The House wants to do 10 times as much, so working that out is going to be tough."

Lucas called the commodity title the biggest factor, saying the Senate has "finally come around to the fact that you have to have a safety net that works not just for the Midwest but for everybody else. They want a program by which, when you sign up for five years, you’re automatically covered under either version of the safety net. The problem is, when you take the responsibility out, you also reduce the quality of the safety net. The House perspective is, let’s give people a choice between which way they go, let them choose for the five years. If they make the right decision, then the safety net will be stronger. If they make the wrong decision, well, they made the decision they made."  (Read more)

Rogers focuses on a key commodity question, "target prices at the heart of a dispute over how to build a new safety net to replace the current system of direct cash payments to farmers, which has been the mainstay for the commodity title for almost two decades. The Senate tends to build its system from revenue on down. The House from production costs up. But each is prone to short cuts that can become a distraction in themselves."

"Calculations by Politico show that based on current market projections, wheat prices would have to drop 48 percent in 2014 before the Senate’s Adverse Market Payment plan would trigger. And the $3.66 per bushel reference price would still be 25 percent below a wheat farmer’s production costs—even after subtracting the value of his land and labor," Rogers writes. "On the opposite side, the House faces criticism for being too quick to count even a farmer’s labor and land investments in calculating production costs. Part of this is regional and reflects the House’s greater sensitivity to the almost feudal land ownership structure in some of Southern agriculture. But the end result is it pushes the House’s target prices up higher than the Senate is willing to go."

The main problem is the inability of the House and Senate to agree on the best way to approach the bill, Rogers writes. "The Senate focuses first on farm revenues—not costs. It concedes that the recent run of high commodity prices will end sometime, but the economic argument is that production costs—such as land and fertilizer—will also fall with time. The House would argue that it is better to err on the side of the farmer’s survival. And it is aggravated by the fact that the Senate invests so much in a 'shallow loss' program even as it is tamping down on target prices intended to build a floor against a real market collapse." (Read more)

UPDATE: Rogers reports "House Republicans were more upbeat Thursday on getting a Farm Bill done this year."

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture has a section on its Twitter page asking people to share what the Farm Bill means to them, and at noon ET Friday, USDA will have a live Twitter chat about the bill.

Green group says Walmart is not as environmentally friendly as it claims to be

Walmart, one of the biggest businesses in rural America, invests plenty of time and money into campaigns to promote how environmentally friendly they have become. But a report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that the corporation isn't nearly as green as it claims to be, Kate Sheppard reports for the Huffington Post. "The report argues that Walmart's emissions are high enough for it to qualify as one of the biggest polluters in the U.S," and that its "greenhouse gas emissions have continued to grow since 2005, while the percentage of power it draws from renewable sources lags far behind other major corporations."

Walmart's green motto
Wal-Mart's annual greenhouse gas emissions have gone "from 18.9 million metric tons in 2005, to 21.5 million metric tons in 2011," and 20.2 million metric tons in 2012, which critics say can be attributed to a mild winter, Sheppard writes. A Walmart spokesman said "the total square footage of Walmart stores and facilities increased 40 percent and sales increased 44 percent, but its greenhouse gas emissions grew only 10 percent."

Walmart's Carbon Disclosure Project filing for 2012 lists a greenhouse-gas intensity of 45.16 metric tons, which doesn't take into consideration emissions "from shipping containers of merchandise from around the world," and "emissions figures account for clearing land and building new supercenters," Sheppard writes. Walmart is the biggest importer in the U.S and built 1,316 new U.S. stores from 2005 to 2012. "The report also argues that Walmart trails other major corporations when it comes to the percentage of power it draws from from renewable sources." (Read more)

Proposed amendment would increase penalties for horse owners caught abusing their steeds

Industry officials from the walking-horse community claim to have mostly eliminated the act of soring—intentionally injuring a horse's front legs to make it step higher—but sponsors of amendments to the 1970 Horse Protection Act still want further legislation in place to protect animals, Ali Watkins reports for McClatchy Newspapers. While the law already outlaws soring, the amendments' sponsor, Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), told the House Energy and Commerce Committee Wednesday that he and "more than 220 co-sponsors ... claim that it’s still widely practiced throughout the walking horse industry." (Horsefund photo: show at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.)

The amendments would place substantial penalties on any show horse owner caught soring, and "would add independent overseers to the largely self-policed industry," Watkins writes. The bill also "bans the use of chains, weights and any other device intended to alter a horse’s natural gait that isn’t 'strictly protective or therapeutic.' It would restrict a person from ordering a horse to undergo soring before competition or auction and would raise financial penalties as well—from $3,000 to $5,000—for owners caught using soring. The bill also would raise the possible disqualification time from three years to five years."

Read more here:

In May, the president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders’ and Exhibitors’ Association, the leading Tennessee walking horse group, said "the industry needs to clean up its image and win back public support in the wake of allegations of soring." In June, a walking horse group sued the U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture over new rules requiring penalties for abuse—but later accepted the penalties.

Dr. John Bennett, "a veterinarian who testified on behalf of the Performance Show Horse Association, said the compliance rates in recent years had been as high as 98 percent," Watkins writes. Bennett said, “The current compliance rates reported by the [USDA] indicate the welfare of the horse is being protected and the industry is achieving the goal of eliminating soring." Critics disagreed. Donna Benefield, the vice president of the International Walking Horse Association, told the committee, “This industry has had over 40 years to rid itself of this abuse and for numerous reasons has not only resisted but has refused reform at every turn. They have maintained, controlled and regulated soring through fear and intimidation for many years.” (Read more)

"Budget constraints restrict the Horse Protection Program, which sends USDA officials to shows to oversee horse inspections for signs of soring, said AVMA's Executive Vice President Dr. Ron DeHaven," Sarah Gonzales reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter."DeHaven said 78 percent of violations during the 2012 show year were found when USDA was present, even though USDA is present at less than 10 percent of shows." He told the committee, “The act represents a unique opportunity to once and for all end the practice of soring to our nation's walking horses. I feel this bill is necessary to stop this culture of abuse that has existed for more than forty years in the industry.” (Read more)

How long is the average commute in your area?

The Census Bureau's American Community Survey in 2011 found that 18.3 million American workers lived in rural areas, with 1.4 million, or 7.1 percent, traveling at least 60 minutes one-way to workNew York Public Radio has compiled an interactive map that shows average commute times in most ZIP codes. To view the map, click here. Here's a piece of it, from Cumberland, Md., to Washington, D.C.:
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, found that rural commuters spend the most money on gas, averaging $4,272 per year, compared to $3,347 for suburban residents, $2,180 for urban residents, and $1,857 for those who work at home, Quentin Fottrell reports for The Wall Street Journal. (Read more) (National Household Travel Survey graphic)
It takes workers in Maryland longer to get to work than employees in any other state, while people in South Dakota have the shortest commute to work, Melissa Maynard reports for Stateline. The average commute time in Maryland in 2012 was 31.9 minutes, while the average commute in South Dakota was 16.7 minutes. The national average was 25.4 minutes. The number of people driving to work alone rose from 75.5 percent to 76.3 percent from 2008 to 2012. More people are working from home, with the number going up from 4.1 percent to 4.4 percent. (American Community Survey map)

Manchin, a Democrat from a rural and increasingly Republican state, keeps charting a bipartisan course

NYT photo by Gabriella Demczuk
Centrist Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who hasn't even served the equivalent of half a term in the U.S. Senate, has placed himself at the tipping point of several public-policy debates in the last year, most recently with his proposal to delay and change parts of the federal health-reform law, writes Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times. He's also been at the center of debates on guns, Syria, student loans and prescription-drug abuse, a big bipartisan issue in his "increasingly Republican state," Weisman notes.

"To some of his colleagues, his iconoclasm, industry and impulsiveness can be taxing. He springs his latest enterprise on the public with little or no consultation with leadership — or even staff," Weisman reports. "But Mr. Manchin’s jovial penchant for taking on serious tasks without seeming terribly serious brings senators along."

“You rarely see any senator get involved in more issues so quickly and yet so effectively,” Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, told Weisman. That's no surprise to folks back home, who remember him as a hands-on governor. “There wasn’t anything going on in any part of the state that he wasn’t involved in,” state Sen. Jack Yost told Weisman. “It doesn’t surprise me that he has his hands in everything there, too.” (Read more)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Report: U.S. will lead world in oil production, but only for 20 years

Beginning in 2015, the U.S. will be the world's top oil producer, but our reign on top will only last 20 years before the Middle East reclaims the crown, according to an annual outlook released Tuesday by the International Energy Agency, David Unger reports for The Christian Science Monitor. The current boom in hydraulic fracturing in the U.S. is why the nation "is expected to lead the world in oil production between 2015 and the early 2030s, according to IEA," Unger writes. (U.S. Energy Information Administration graphic)

After that, "U.S. oil imports will rapidly drop on increased production and greater consumer efficiency, pushing the country toward 'meeting all of its energy needs from domestic resources by 2035,'" Unger writes. "That's when the picture gets fuzzy. Some in the industry say that the shale oil and gas boom radically redefines how much oil and gas is recoverable across the globe. China leads the world in shale gas resources with an estimated 1,115 trillion cubic feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Russia stands to dominate in supplies of oil from shale, with an estimated 75 billion barrels in technically recoverable resources. The key word is 'technically.' Shale resources are difficult and costly to extract, and many, including the IEA, do not expect the success in the US to be replicated elsewhere. While oil prices will continue to remain historically high, it won't be enough to compete with the Middle East's abundant supply of cheap, conventional oil."

The outlook states: "The Middle East, the only large source of low-cost oil, remains at the centre of the longer-term oil outlook. The role of OPEC countries in quenching the world’s thirst for oil is reduced temporarily over the next ten years by rising output from the United States, from oil sands in Canada, from deepwater production in Brazil and from natural gas liquids from all over the world. But, by the mid-2020s, non-OPEC production starts to fall back, and countries in the Middle East provide most of the increase in global supply." (Read more) (Market Place graphic)

When it comes to jobs, rural areas experience slower recession recovery than urban ones

Employment in rural and urban areas fell by the same amount during the 2007-09 recession and rose at the same level during the 2010 recovery. But while jobs in metro areas are growing, the same cannot be said for rural areas, according to the 2013 edition of Rural America at a Glance by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Norma Cohen reports for the Financial Times. Population loss is one of the main reasons for the lack of job growth, Cohen writes. "Population loss has meant fewer jobs as demand for goods and services falls, which in turn encourages those with higher skills to move away. Lower population density also makes it more expensive to deliver vital services, the report adds, potentially exacerbating population loss." (Read more) (ERS graphic: Population patterns)

The report states: "Between the first halves of 2012 and 2013, the number of employed people grew in 41 percent of non-metro counties (803 of 1,976) and fell or was unchanged in the remaining 59 percent (1,173 counties). Nonmetro employment losses were especially large in Arkansas (down 4.1 percent) and in Illinois and Arizona (down 1.8 percent each). Nonmetro employment gains were more common in the Northern Plains, led by North Dakota (up 4.9 percent), and in the Southwest, led by Colorado (up 2.4 percent)." Overall, unemployment rates were 7.8 percent in non-metro areas, which is down from 10 percent in 2010. The rate is 7.5 percent in metro areas. (ERS graphic: Employment growth)

Salaries are also much lower in non-metro areas, the report states. "In 2012, median annualized weekly earnings for wage and salary workers who held full-time employment (or held a part-time job but desired full-time work) were $32,000 in non-metro areas—about 20 percent lower than in metro areas ($38,500). This disparity was more pronounced at the upper end of the earnings distribution, with the 95th percentile earning 27 percent less in non-metro areas ($91,000 versus $125,000 in metro areas). In contrast, the difference between non-metro and metro earnings was only 9 percent for the bottom 5th percentile of earners ($10,400 versus $11,300)." To read the report click here. (ERS graphic: Non-metro vs. metro salaries)

Thursday webinar for journalists on Affordable Care Act to focus on ways to approach stories

The Kaiser Family Foundation's informative series of webinars for journalists about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act continues Thursday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET. This webinar will focus on "approaches to covering this complex story by incorporating individual examples; provide tips and techniques for digging into the details of the law (with expert help) to describe how its provisions play out in real life; and suggest new angles and under-reported story ideas. Additionally, they will identify upcoming policy deadlines and timelines and explore how to weave these into your stories over the next several months," according to Kaiser. The event will be hosted by Kaiser staff writer Sarah Varney and Michelle Andrews, who writes a weekly health column for The Washington Post.

Journalists who want to register can RSVP by clicking here. Shortly after registering, each participant will receive a confirmation email that contains information about how to join the webinar. If you are unable to join this webinar but would like to receive all future updates about the series, please email your name and media affiliation to Video and transcripts are also available for the first three webinars, “What Do Consumers Need to Know About Health Reform’s Changes,” “Understanding Insurance Premiums Under the Affordable Care Act" and "The Impact of State Decisions."

County maps show number of health-plan choices

Last month we noted a story and interactive map in The New York Times that showed many rural counties lack much choice and thus pay higher premiums for health insurance through the federal government's troubled website. Now USA Today offers another take, with county-by-county maps showing approximately how many bronze, silver, gold and platinum plans are being offered in each county in states that are using the federal health-insurance exchange. Here's the map for silver plans, which are the most common and cover about 70 percent of health-care costs:

Survey finds many states are not discussing climate change in relation to natural hazards

Is your state discussing the effects of climate change? While every state is required to file a State Hazard Mitigation Plan with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, states are not required to mention the effects of climate change in their plan. A survey by Columbia Law School found that 18 states (Category 1) either had no mention of climate change in their plan or had inaccurate information. Eleven states (Category 2) had minimal mention of climate change, and 10 (Category 3) had accurate but limited discussion. The report only ranked 11 states (Category 4) as having thorough discussion on the impacts and hazards of climate change. (Columbia Law graphic: Yellow states are Category 1, orange Category 2, red Category 3, dark red Category 4)

Several states, many of them mostly rural, that list hazards in their plan don't discuss the hazards in relation to climate change, the report states. Georgia, which doesn't have a climate change plan, lists in its plan: hurricanes, storm surge, wind, severe weather, tornadoes, inland flooding, severe winter weather, drought, wildfire, seismic hazards, sinkholes, dam failure. Indiana, which also doesn't have a climate change plan, lists flood, dams, tornadoes, earthquakes, winter storms. Idaho, which also doesn't have a climate change plan, lists flood, earthquake, wildfire, avalanche, dam failure, drought, HazMat, landslide, lightning, severe storms, volcanism, wind, tornadoes. Montana, Arizona, and Pennsylvania list climate change plans for some hazards but not all the ones they list in their report.

"Overall, the database and findings of this survey should serve as a base for further analysis of the integration of climate change information into the SHMPs," the report states. "Possible next steps include comparisons between the plans analyzed in this paper and the new versions scheduled for 2013-2014, more specific analysis of how to transfer what works from  Category 4 plans to lower ranked plans and further comparisons between the risk assessments put forth by the SHMP s and the National Climate Assessment. It may also be helpful to investigate how FEMA can help spur additional climate change integration in the SHMPs" (Read more)

Ky. county gives yellow light to wind industry

UPDATE, May 11, 2014: Duke says it will discontinue the project, but Mason County officials say they still need an ordinance to govern wind farms, Toncray reports.

Officials of a county that would be home to Kentucky's first wind-energy project have blocked any local permitting for it until the county adopts an ordinance governing the industry.

The Mason County Fiscal Court acted Tuesday in response to requests from opponents of the project for a moratorium, which the spokesman for the opposition said "gets to the point, it's not vague. It tells people what you want to do," reports Marla Toncray of the Ledger Independent in Maysville.

County Judge-Executive James "Buddy" Gallenstein said the county commissioners' resolution accomplishes the same thing as a moratorium because Duke Energy cannot erect wind turbines without permits and licenses from the fiscal court. Toncray reports that commissioners want to hold a public forum on wind turbines and consult "with elected officials of communities in West Virginia and Indiana that have implemented ordinances and zoning related to wind turbines."

Duke would build 26 to 100 turbines south of Mays Lick in southeastern Mason County (Wikipedia map) and northwestern Fleming County, Toncray reports.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

EPA's coming decision on ethanol in fuel looms over politics, food prices and energy markets

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce within the next few days "how many billions of gallons of ethanol it will require refiners to blend into gasoline and diesel fuel in 2014," with a leaked October draft showing the agency will lower amounts to 2012 levels, Darren Goode reports for Politico. If the federal requirement for blending ethanol into fuel is reduced, it could have a major impact on "farm-state politics, food prices and the nation’s energy markets," Keith Good of writes. "No matter where EPA sets the volume requirements for ethanol and other biofuel blends in 2014, the standard is going to face push-back," Clare Foran of National Journal writes.

"The debate over how much ethanol should be forced into the American gasoline supply pits powerhouse special interests against each other," Goode reports. "On the pro-ethanol side: the renewable fuels industry, corn growers and many Midwestern lawmakers. On the anti-ethanol side: the oil industry, restaurant owners, livestock and poultry producers and, increasingly, a disenchanted environmental movement that no longer believes the plant-based fuel is a greener alternative to fossil fuels. In addition, a new generation of tea-party Republicans — viscerally opposed to government mandates and fuel subsidies — has joined the fight against ethanol."

Ethanol backers, who "say a pullback would contradict Obama’s goals of reducing dependence on oil and lessening vehicles’ carbon dioxide emissions," have threatened to file a lawsuit "if EPA scales back the mandate," Goode writes. "The agency can reduce the volume mandate for traditional biofuels — corn ethanol — only if the requirements would harm the economy or environment, or if 'there is an inadequate domestic supply,' according to the law." On the other hand, "Opponents say the mandate distorts fuel markets and will raise gasoline prices, especially as the increased blending requirements collide with declining demand for gasoline. They also note that production of 'cellulosic' forms of ethanol from sources like husks and switchgrass have been a small fraction of what Congress expected six years ago." (Read more)

UPDATE, Nov. 13: Agri-Pulse, citing "some analysts," says in its weekly newsletter that whatever rule EPA issues, it is likely to land in court; meanwhile, "In the court of public opinion, latest flap arose over release Tuesday of a lengthy Associated Press story that characterized government policies promoting ethanol as failing to meet proposed greenhouse-gas reduction goals and causing widespread soil water degradation by promoting the over-production of corn." (Read more) Chris Clayton, policy editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer, writes, "The AP report did not touch upon any positive developments of biofuels. . . . You know who is going to be thrilled to distribute the AP story to every member of Congress? The American Petroleum Institute." (Read more) Ted Bridis, the AP's lead editor on the report, gives background on AP's blog, The Definitive Source.

10 percent of recent veterans are unemployed

In October, 6.9 percent of U.S. veterans were unemployed. The unemployment rate for veterans who have served since 9/11 is 10 percent—or 256,000 people. "That's the same rate as it was a year ago, and it's a high jobless rate than it is for non-veterans, after adjusting for age and demographic factors," Brad Plumer reports for The Washington Post. 
Council of Economic Advisers chart
Here are three reasons veterans, who disproportionately come from rural areas, may be experiencing difficulties finding work:

1. Disability rates are higher among veterans. A 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts survey reported that 44 percent of veterans had a disability related to their service time, and the unemployment rate for them was 12.5 percent. "A 2011 Pew survey found that 44 percent of veterans who served since 9/11 were having trouble adjusting to civilian life," Plumer writes, especially those who were subjected to serious injuries or faced a particularly traumatic experience.

2. Veterans may not have enough civilian work experience. Though they gained useful traits like leadership and discipline and sometime even special skills like health care or information training, but their lack of civilian work experience still puts them at a disadvantage, especially in the current economy when employers are even less inclined to take risks. 

3. Complex licensing requirements are also an obstacle. Even if veterans have the necessary skills to perform a certain job, they still have to "go through a fresh set of licensing hurdles," Plumer writes. A report from the White House earlier this year said, "Despite having valuable military experience, veterans frequently find it difficult to obtain formal private sector recognition of their military training, experiences and skill sets through civilian certification and licensure. This also makes it difficult for the private sector to capitalize on the resources and time spent training and educating service members." Many states have worked to remove some of these obstacles, but these improvements are not universal. 

This situation will become more concerning as military veterans increase in number in the next few years. "Each year the military separates between 240,000 and 360,000 service members, and as we draw down from the war in Afghanistan, the military is expected so separate a million service members over the next several years," the report said. (Read more)

Kentucky program that labels food raised and sold by veterans is going national

A program created in Kentucky to help veterans who raise crops and livestock is going national. In January, state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer instituted "Homegrown by Heroes," which puts a red-white- and-blue image on products sold by those who served in the armed forces, allowing "consumers to identify farmer veteran products and support the nation's military veterans by purchasing their products," Sara Wyant reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

"The program will be expanded nationwide through the Farmer Veteran Coalition, thanks in part to a $250,000 commitment announced today by the Farm Credit System, a national network of cooperatives that provides financing and related services to agricultural producers, agribusinesses, and rural infrastructure providers," Wyant writes. "According to Michael Lewis, the first Kentucky farmer veteran to use the Homegrown By Heroes label, the program also gives retailers a message they can get behind, helping farmer veterans expand their markets." (Read more)

"Agriculture officials in seven states — California, Iowa, West Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut, Arkansas and Louisiana — have expressed interest in the program, Comer said," reports Ryan Alessi of cn|2, a Kentucky news service of Time Warner Cable. (Read more)

No-till farming trend shows no sign of slacking

No-till farming is becoming more common, Brad Plumer writes for The Washington Post. Plowing and tillage cause soil erosion and release carbon dioxide into the air, increasing concerns about global warming. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no-till farming is growing at a pace of about 1.5 percent every year.
Herbicides like atrazine and paraquat gave farmers ways to kill weeds without plowing up more soil, and seed drills and other equipment invented in the 1960s let farmers plant with little disturbance to the soil. The 1985 Farm Bill and higher oil prices encouraged farmers to adopt no-till. "As the technique became more widely used, U.S. farmers found that they could conserve water, reduce erosion and use less fossil fuel and labor to grow crops," and U.S. cropland erosion dropped almost 40 percent between 1982 and 1997, Plumer writes.

No-till does have disadvantages. It leads to increased use of chemical herbicides for weed killing, and the specialized equipment to make it happen costs more upfront. Still, USDA "expects no-till operations to keep spreading in the United States in the year ahead," Plumer reports. If no-till farming became common around the world as well, it could have positive effects on the climate. Governments should provide research, training or financial support to encourage the adoption of no-till farming and smooth the transition, according to a recent report from the U.N. Environment Program.

"The UNEP estimates that no-tillage operations in the United States have helped avoid 241 million metric tons of carbon dioxide since the 1970s. That's the equivalent to the annual emissions of about 50 million cars," Plumer writes. (Read more)

Kansas community media leaders receive awards from rural development institute

The Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University recently honored its community leaders of the year at a ceremony at the college, the Hutch Post in Hutchinson, Kan., reports. Recognized as Leaders of the Year in Radio were Bob Schmidt, co-founder and chairman of Eagle Communications, and Gary Shorman, Eagle's president and CEO. An employee-owned company, Eagle owns 28 radio stations in Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, and 30 cable systems in Kansas and Colorado. Recognized in newspapers was Dolph Simons Jr., chairman and editor of The World Co., which publishes the Lawrence Journal-World and other newspapers in the area. (Read more) (Post photo: Gary Shorman and Bob Schmidt)

Each week, the Huck Boyd institute has a radio show called  "Kansas Profile" that describes "the ideas and achievements of a local leader or entrepreneur in a rural community," according to the organization's website. The show, which began airing in 1992, was created to provide "positive recognition to such leaders and sharing their ideas, we hope to encourage these and other Kansans to build on their examples. In doing so, rural Kansas can be made an even better place to live and work." (Read more)

Health system in rural Iowa county offers $10,000 for referring a physician who signs a contract

Because the average age of doctors is going up, and fewer younger physicians are taking jobs in rural areas, there is growing concern about the future of health care in those areas. The Hancock County Health System in northern Iowa is trying to lure doctors to its 11,000-population county with big incentives. But not for the doctors. Anyone who refers a physician who ends up signing a contract with the health systems will receive $10,000 after the doctor has worked for one year, DeeDee Stiepen reports for KIMT News in Mason City.

Vance Jackson, CEO of the health system, told Stiepen, "I've been doing this for 27 years and primarily in rural areas, and I've never known a time when we didn't have a shortage." Dr. John Brady is one of only two primary care physicians in the county. He told Stiepen, "As far as rural areas [go], I think it's deceiving sometimes people think that they'll walk into a clinic and it's going to look … that term rural is a little bit deceiving; I think our quality of our clinic system is just as good as any larger clinic system." (Read more) KIMT ews clip:

Monday, November 11, 2013

Colorado releases regulations on hemp production; Oregon to post rules soon

Colorado has unveiled regulations for hemp farming, with several buyers already lined up to purchase the crops, while Oregon plans to post hemp rules in time for spring planting. Many states have been trying to be the first to produce legal hemp, with Colorado's Ryan Loflin (left) in October harvesting the nation's first commercial hemp crop in 56 years.

Regulations released last week in Colorado "call for farmers to register and pay a $200 annual fee, plus $1 per acre planted. Farms will be subject to inspections to make sure that the hemp plants contain no more than 0.3 percent THC," the plant's psychoactive ingredient, Steve Raabe reports for The Denver Post. The rules will be submitted this week for approval by commissioners of the state Department of Agriculture.

"Christopher Boucher of San Diego-based US Hemp Oil said his company plans to build a facility to process hemp-seed oil in the San Luis Valley" in southern Colorado, Raabe writes. "The plant initially could employ six to eight workers and grow to 50 or 60 employees, depending on the acreage planted in Colorado. But he said the facility can't start until farmers have assurance that they can buy starter seeds. Because of the federal ban on non-sterile hemp seeds, growers could in theory face criminal charges or have their foreign seed shipments confiscated by U.S. Customs agents." Barbara Filippone, owner of a Colorado-based company, EnviroTextiles, said she has plans for two factories to make hemp-based industrial products. Filippone told Raabe, "Colorado is the ideal location for market development based on location and logistics." (Read more)

Oregon "passed a law approving industrial hemp cultivation in 2009, but it was never implemented because the federal government continued to classify hemp as an illegal drug like its cousin, marijuana," Eric Mortensen reports for the Capital Press. "Oregon’s law requires hemp growers and manufacturers to obtain a permit from the state. The statue requires a minimum growing operation of 2.5 acres. THC levels would have to be certified as well." The Oregon Department of Agriculture intends to adopt production rules in time for spring planting should farmers want to go that route, a department spokesman said. (Read more)

N.C. leaders seek rural economic strategies

Rural areas in North Carolina are seeing slower economic growth and development. In some areas, businesses cannot find employees with the skills needed for the jobs; in other areas, qualified workers cannot find jobs. There is no simple answer to solve these issues, Andrew Curliss writes for the News & Observer in Raleigh. 

Gov. Pat McCrory (N&O)
Gov. Pat McCrory's Republican administration has said that "helping rural pockets prosper is a critical part of boosting North Carolina's overall economic health,"so state leaders are changing their strategies for promoting rural economic development. McCrory and Commerce Secretary Sharon Decker say they "want more jobs at higher wages outside the state's metropolitan areas."

"There is no program from the state that is going to solve it," Pat Mitchell, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for rural economic development, told Curliss. "Mitchell was thrust into the new role by a series of events over the past few months that led to changes at the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, the state's longtime voice for rural areas," Curliss notes. The legislature took about $100 million from the center, which will now serve a considerably smaller role, prioritizing helping small business and providing training for rural leaders. Mitchell and a board of 16 others will be leading the efforts to help rural areas.

Decker often says that helping rural areas is important to her strategy. "We want to create a net job growth. We want a higher average wage. We want more and better jobs were people life," Decker told a North Carolina Farm Bureau gathering this year. "Those outcomes are going to happen by placing a greater emphasis on existing industry, doing more for small business and entrepreneurs, targeting our recruitment on industry sectors—like advanced manufacturing, agribusiness, and others, with a strong emphasis on rural North Carolina."

Mitchell, nevertheless, says it's too soon to say what policies or ideas might be employed to solve these issues. For example, she couldn't say where grants would be made. She also "deflected a question about how she would prevent political influence around the state's future rural grants," Curliss writes. Political connections seemed prevalent in some of the center's decisions.

"There's not a sweeping answer to fixing what ails rural areas," said Dan Broun, a program director at Durham-based MDC, a 50-year-old nonprofit that has focused on helping rural areas. "So there's not going to be a decisive, one-size-fits-all-way to go at this." Enrico Moretti, an economics professor at the University of California-Berkleley, said "skilled workers are clustering in metro regions and creating an even greater gap between 'high-knowledge' areas and all others, especially rural."

Brushy Mountain Bee Farm Manager Shane Gebauer has experienced difficulties finding good workers. Unemployment in Wilkes County is at 9.5 percent, but many people cannot read or do basic math, which is required for many of the jobs, Curliss writes. Gebauer told him, "Education is a huge part of this." (Read more)

Common Core Standards for schools in 45 states stir social conservatives' reaction in some

With the adoption of the Common Core Standards for education in most states, there is growing concern about local officials' losing control over what they teach. As a result, "State education leaders are moving to calm political tempests by adopting or reaffirming policies aimed at asserting local control over data, curriculum and materials. But the classroom-level impact of those moves could be negligible as states forge ahead on common-core implementation, Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week. Only five states—Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Alaska and Virginia—have not adopted the standards.

"On the one hand, officials' actions in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Michigan highlight anxieties over the privacy of information about individual students and what some see as state and federal intrusion into classrooms," Ujifusa writes. "At the same time, the specific steps, all in states run by Republicans, largely emphasize existing policy or practice."

The state school board in Louisiana "clarified that school districts maintain control over classroom content and cannot have course materials forced on them," Ujifusa writes. Alabama "adopted a policy that no data that can be traced to individual students is to be shared with the federal government," and Florida "refused to adopt appendices accompanying the common core that include suggested specific fiction and non-fiction selections. Some of the suggested literature has come under fire from conservative activists for how they portray radical politics and sexuality." In Michigan, they passed a resolution that "reaffirmed the power of districts, while shielding the board from political meddling in academic-content standards." (Read more)

Business is booming in rural Nebraska town, with $700 million in development projects in the works

Anyone who thinks rural America is generally declining need only look at the town of Sidney, Neb., to see that business is booming in some areas. The town, which has more jobs (8,050) than residents (7,000), is about to go through an enormous growth spurt, with investors planning to put $700 million into housing, medical, commercial and city development projects in an effort to bring more people to the rural area, where jobs are plentiful, David Hendee reports for the Omaha World-Herald.

Development plans include spending $350 million to $500 million in residential neighborhoods to build nearly 800 primarily single-family homes in an area where property value continues to skyrocket, Hendee writes. Valerie Nienhueser, manager of Cheyenne County Title & Escrow "said she has worked late hours nearly every day during the last 15 years to handle paperwork for real estate transactions that were part of a $286 million increase in property valuations during the period." (Omaha World-Leader)
But the town is ready for the expansion, and "is prepared better than most towns its size to handle the development onslaught because it has the infrastructure, services and economic demographics of a community of 15,000," City Manager Gary Person said. "Commuters make up as much as 40 percent of workers. Business and leisure travelers often fill the 550 motel rooms. Interstate 80, U.S. Highways 30 and 385, and the Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway cross the city."

The development plan includes a new $52 million hospital, with construction beginning in May and expected to last 16 to 18 months, Hendee writes. There will also be a $34 million expansion of of the headquarters for Cabela's, which employs 1,800 and regularly has 100 open jobs, while the hospital has 25 open, high-paying positions. Other developments include construction of a $25 million Bell Lumber and Pole Manufacturing operation, a nearly $15 million expansion of Adams Industries' rail logistics park northwest of the city and an $8 million Fairfield Marriott. (Read more)

Federal review finds no health risk in eating genetically modified non-browning apples

Arctic Apple
Biting into an apple and seeing big chunks of brown can be pretty unappetizing. To some, it may be just as repulsive to think that someone in a lab can genetically modify an apple so it doesn't brown, but "Apples genetically engineered to be resistant to browning pose no more risk to the environment or human health than naturally produced apple," according to the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Amanda Peterka reports for Environment and Energy News.

The agency "published an 83-page draft environmental assessment that largely dismissed concerns raised by critics of genetically engineered food about cross-pollination and impacts to air, water and soil health. The review also found that the apples would not pose health or worker safety concerns," Peterka writes. The agency said: "Based on the information submitted by the applicant and reviewed by APHIS," the genetically engineered apples "are agronomically, phenotypically, and biochemically comparable to conventional apple except for the nonbrowning trait."

Despite its findings, the agency said it is considering denying a petition by British Columbia-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits Inc. to determine that its genetically engineered apple could be sold in the United States, because of a high number of negative comments about the apples from food safety groups and the public, Peterka writes. (Read more)

National Rural Health Day set Nov. 21 in Michigan; webinars available for those unable to attend

The third annual National Rural Health Day, which brings awareness to rural health issues and current efforts in addressing these issues, will be observed with events nationwide and special presentations in Sterling Heights, Mich., Nov. 21.

The National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health and all 50 state offices of rural health said in a news release that health concerns of the 60 million rural Americans include: a lack of health care providers; accessibility issues, particularly transportation and technology; and affordability, as the result of higher out-of-pocket costs and other factors.

"Meanwhile, rural hospitals and health systems face declining reimbursement rates and disproportionate funding levels that make it challenging to meet the physical, social and economic needs of their communities," organizers say.

The observance also focuses attention on state rural-health offices, which foster relationships, disseminate information and provide technical assistance that improves access to quality health care for rural citizens, according to the news release.

National Rural Health Day events include several free webinars. To learn more about the observance, visit Contacts: Bill Hessert at 814-360-1964,; Teryl Eisinger at 586-850-5257,

Stress from weather conditions led to congestive heart failure in livestock killed in S.D. blizzard

Congestive heart failure brought on by stress killed many of the thousands of livestock that died in the South Dakota blizzard last month, according to the state veterinarian, which has verified the deaths of 13,977 cattle, 1,257 sheep, 287 horses and 40 bison, Andrea Cook reports for the Rapid City Journal. After being drenched by rain for 12 to 18 hours, the animals were finished off by snow and winds from the blizzards, according to Dr. Dustin Oedekoven, who told Cook, "Those cows likely got hypothermic. They were cold." As a result of the weather, "the cardiovascular systems of the cattle were working overtime, causing hypertension or high blood pressure in their lungs."

Overall, an estimated 180,000 cattle were lost in the blizzard. Since Congress hasn't passed a farm bill, the livestock owners are not eligible for federal assistance because the program that once protected livestock owners expired. The Rancher Relief Fund, designed to aid farmers who lost livestock, "has received more than $700,000 in donations, according to Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers," Cook writes. (Read more)