Organic farming is carbon sequestration we can believe in (updated)

The phrase “carbon sequestration” is often used in connection with so-called “clean coal” technology that doesn’t exist. Scientific debate over the best methods of carbon capture and storage tends to weigh the costs and benefits of various high-tech solutions to the problem.

But Tim LaSalle, CEO of the non-profit Rodale Institute, reminds us in a guest column for the Des Moines Register that an effective means of sequestering carbon in our soil already exists:

By using organic agricultural methods and eliminating petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pest-and-weed control, we build – rather than destroy – the biology of our soil. While improving the health of the soil we also enhance its ability to diminish the effects of flooding, as just one example. In some laboratory trials, organically farmed soils have provided 850 percent less runoff than conventional, chemically fertilized soils. This is real flood prevention, not sandbag bandages for life-threatening emergencies.

When the soil is nurtured through organic methods, it allows plants to naturally pull so much carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil that global warming can actually be reversed. Farms using conventional, chemical fertilizer release soil carbon into the atmosphere. Switching to organic methods turns a major global-warming contributor into the single largest remedy of the climate crisis, while eliminating toxic farm chemical drainage into our streams, rivers and aquifers.

Using such methods, we would be sequestering from 25 percent to well over 100 percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions. Microscopic life forms in the soil hold carbon in the soil for up to 100 years. This is much more efficient than inserting foreign genes. Healthy soil already does that at such remarkable levels it usually can eliminate crop disasters, which means greater food security for all nations. And the beauty is, investing in soils is not patentable, enriching just some, but instead is free to all.

Where has this science, this solution, been hiding? It has been intentionally buried under the weight of special interests – that are selling chemicals into our farming system, lobbying Congress, embedding employees in government agencies and heavily funding agricultural university research.

A few years ago, the Rodale Institute published a detailed report on how Organic farming combats global warming. Click that link for more facts and figures.

For more on how groups promoting industrial agriculture lobby Congress, see this Open Secrets report and this piece from the Green Guide on The New Food Pyramid: How Corporations Squash Regulation.

Expanding organic farming and reducing the amount of chemicals used on conventional farms would have other environmental advantages as well, most obviously an improvement in water quality both in farming states and downstream. Last week the National Academcy of Sciences released findings from the latest study proving that chemicals applied to farms are a major contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico:

The study, conducted at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends setting pollution reduction targets for the watersheds, or drainage areas, that are the largest sources of the pollution that flows down the Mississippi River to the gulf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was urged to help fund a series of pilot projects to test how changes in farming practices and land use can reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. The report, written by a panel of scientists, did not say how much money would be needed. Agricultural experts and congressional aides said it wasn’t clear whether there was enough money in federal conservation programs to fund the necessary projects.

[…]

The government has been debating for years about how to address the oxygen-depleted dead zone, or hypoxia, in the gulf. The dead zone reached 8,000 square miles this year, the second-largest area recorded since mapping began in the 1980s.

[…]

Agricultural groups don’t want mandatory controls put on farms.

However, a scientific advisory board of the EPA has recommended reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the gulf by 45 percent. More than 75 percent of those two pollutants originates in nine states, including Iowa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here’s a link to more detailed findings about how agricultural states contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Organic farming is also good for rural economic development because it employs more people. I’ll write more soon on the economic benefits of implementing other sustainable agriculture policies.

UPDATE: This post generated a lot of good discussion at Daily Kos. You can view those comments here.

When OrangeClouds115 speaks, I listen:

BTW – can you request in your diary that people who support your ideas here sign the petition at http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/ ? Apparently its 40,000+ signatures have gotten the attention of Obama’s transition team and Michael Pollan himself thinks that they may actually listen to us if we get to 100,000 signatures.

SECOND UPDATE: Thanks to understandinglife for the Digg link.

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EPA ruling is blow to new coal-fired power plants (updated)

It may become harder for utilities to gain permission to build new coal-fired power plants while promising to deal with carbon-dioxide emissions at some point in the future, when carbon sequestration technology becomes available.

From a press release circulated on the Sierra Club’s Iowa topics e-mail loop yesterday:

Ruling: Coal Plants Must Limit C02

In a move that signals the start of the our clean energy future, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Appeals Board (EAB) ruled today EPA had no valid reason for refusing to limit from new coal-fired power plants the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming.  The decision means that all new and proposed coal plants nationwide must go back and address their carbon dioxide emissions.

“Today’s decision opens the way for meaningful action to fight global warming and is a major step in bringing about a clean energy economy,” said Joanne Spalding, Sierra Club Senior Attorney who argued the case. “This is one more sign that we must begin repowering, refueling and rebuilding America.”

“The EAB rejected every Bush Administration excuse for failing to regulate the largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States.  This decision gives the Obama Administration a clean slate to begin building our clean energy economy for the 21st century,” continued Spalding The decision follows a 2007 Supreme Court ruling recognizing carbon dioxide, the principle source of global warming, is a pollutant under the federal Clean Air Act.

“Coal plants emit 30% of our nation’s global warming pollution. Building new coal plants without controlling their carbon emissions could wipe out all of the other efforts being undertaken by cities, states and communities across the country,” said Bruce Nilles, Director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign. “Everyone has a role to play and it’s time that the

coal industry did its part and started living up to its clean coal rhetoric.”

The Sierra Club went before the Environmental Appeals Board in May of 2008 to request that the air permit for Deseret Power Electric Cooperative’s proposed waste coal-fired power plant be overturned because it failed to require any controls on carbon dioxide pollution. Deseret Power’s 110 MW Bonanza plant would have emitted 3.37 million tons of carbon dioxide each

year.

“Instead of pouring good money after bad trying to fix old coal technology, investors should be looking to wind, solar and energy efficiency

technologies that are going to power the economy, create jobs, and help the climate recover,” said Nilles.

I don’t yet know how this ruling will affect the proposed coal-fired power plants for Waterloo and Marshalltown. I will update this post as more information becomes available.

UPDATE: Mark Kresowik, National Corporate Accountability Representative with the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign, provided this comment:

“The Environmental Appeals Board remanded Deseret’s air quality permit for the Bonanza coal plant, issued by the EPA under the PSD program, back to the EPA. They clearly stated that the EPA has the authority to regulate carbon dioxide and establish a “best available control technology” (BACT) limit for carbon dioxide pollution from significant new sources (like coal plants).

While they did not answer the question of whether or not the EPA MUST establish a limit, they did reject all of the previous excuses the Bush EPA has used to avoid regulating carbon dioxide.  So EPA must completely reopen the air quality permit, decide whether or not to limit CO2 from power plants (and how to limit CO2 if it chooses to), and justify that decision.

The EAB decision is formally binding on all air quality permits issued by the EPA.  However, most air quality permits are not issued by the EPA but rather by state authorities delegated that power by the EPA, for instance the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  However, those authorities must enforce regulations at least as stringently as the EPA and all of them look to the EPA for guidance on issues such as this.  So it is probable that every coal plant air quality permit in the country from now on (including those issued but still being challenged on carbon dioxide grounds) must address CO2 limits directly, either establishing a limit or justifying their refusal in a new way that the EPA has not previously used.  It is likely a de-facto stay on all air quality permit decisions for approximately the next 6-12 months, including proposed coal plants in Waterloo and Marshalltown that have not been issued air quality permits.

This is an important opportunity for Iowa and the entire country to make significant investments in energy efficiency and clean energy that will lower energy costs, create millions of “green collar” jobs, and stimulate our economy.”

Looks like the DNR is our best hope for stopping new coal-fired power plants in Iowa.

Meanwhile, earlier this week Wisconsin became the latest state to reject an application to build a coal-fired power plant. The whole press release from the Iowa Environmental Council is after the jump. Here is an excerpt:

“Building coal-fired power plants has never made sense from an environmental perspective and no longer makes sense from an economic perspective,” said Katie Nekola, energy program director of Clean Wisconsin. “The transition toward a clean energy economy is beginning, and it’s important for other states not to lag behind the movement by building more coal plants.”

Nathaniel Baer, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, says Iowans need to follow the lead of neighboring states to the west, north, and now east, which have concluded that clean energy makes more economic sense than coal.

“Iowa simply cannot afford to be left behind sinking billions of dollars into monuments to 19th century dirty coal,” Baer said.

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