Federal Water Tap, October 17: Infrastructure

Biofuel Reality Check
In 2007, Congress enacted revised standards for national biofuel production, setting annual volume mandates for transportation fuels up to 2022. To assess the benefits and barriers to achieving the standards, Congress asked the National Research Council to investigate.

As with any prognostication, the major findings in the 447-page report are peppered with qualifiers and hedges. The NRC concludes that without “major technological innovation or policy changes” the nation is unlikely to meet the goal of producing 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2022. Currently there are no commercial cellulosic-fuel production facilities in the U.S.

A second conclusion is that, unless agricultural yields and technological efficiency improve, the biofuel standard is expected to raise cropland prices and increase the price of food and livestock feed. The effects of the standard on water quality and quantity will be different for each region and source fuel. Most biofuel production is much more water-intensive than petroleum-based fuels. See this Circle of Blue infographic for how many gallons of water it takes to drive one mile.

A copy of the report can be downloaded from the NRC website.

Don’t Bank on It
The National Infrastructure Bank, a part of President Obama’s jobs bill, faces a difficult path. On October 12 at a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee meeting, Committee chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said, “I’m afraid a National Infrastructure Bank, as proposed by this legislation or the administration, is dead on arrival in the House of Representatives.” Mica said that the bill creates more bureaucracy, and the bank can’t start operating immediately. He suggested using existing bureaucratic and legislative financing mechanisms: the 33 state infrastructure banks, the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, and the Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing program. The ranking Democrat, Peter DeFazio of Oregon, was more circumspect, saying an infrastructure bank “could be useful” but it “has its limits.”

Climate Change and Infrastructure
Bills have been introduced in both the House and the Senate that would establish a federal grant program to help utilities adapt to new hydrological circumstances associated with climate change. The House bill is sponsored by California Democrat Lois Capps; the Senate version, by Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin.

Rural Infrastructure
A U.S. Department of Agriculture loan and grant program serving rural communities is proposing new regulations to make it easier for trust lands to acquire electric, water, sewer, phone and broadband capacity. Trust lands are those managed by the federal government for American Indian tribes and Alaska Natives. Financing projects on such lands can be difficult because the land often cannot be used to secure the loan. The Substantially Underserved Trust Area initiative will give the USDA administrator the authority to make loans with interest rates as low as 2 percent or to extend repayment terms.

Native American Water Infrastructure
As a fillip to his job-creation aspirations, President Obama announced last week that 14 infrastructure projects would be fast-tracked through the environmental review and permitting processes. Included is the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply project, a 280-mile pipeline network estimated to cost $1 billion. The pipeline would deliver San Juan River water to the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla-Apache Nation, and the city of Gallup, N.M., weaning those areas from unsustainable groundwater use.

House Coal-Ash Bill
The House of Representatives passed a bill that would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the toxic residues from coal-fired power plants (called ‘coal ash’) and would let states set their own standards, the Associated Press reports. The bill, which is unlikely to be taken up by the Democrat-controlled Senate, would also allow less-stringent water quality standards for arsenic, cadmium and lead at the coal-ash dump sites, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit law group focusing on the enforcement of environmental laws.

Climate Change
The National Research Council is assessing the effects of climate change on social and political stress. On October 6-7, the committee held its first meeting for the study, which is expected to last 18 months.

Federal Water Tap is a weekly digest spotting trends in U.S. government water policy. To get more water news, follow Circle of Blue on Twitter and sign up for our newsletter.

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