Now comes a report that using corn crop residue to make ethanol and other biofuels reduces soil carbon and can generate more greenhouse gases than gasoline, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln research team. The U.S. Department of Energy has provided more than $1 billion in federal funds to support research to develop biofuels. This research reveals a setback.
Using a supercomputer model, Assistant Professor Adam Liska and other researchers estimated the effect of corn residue removal on 128 million acres across 12 states. Liska's study, funded by the Department of Energy, used carbon dioxide measurements taken from 2001 to 2010 to validate a soil carbon model that was built using data from 36 field studies. It found that the process of removing corn wastes, known as stover, requires energy expenditure and generates carbon emissions without creating enough new energy to make it worthwhile. Additionally, because plants use carbon dioxide, they play an important role in reducing atmospheric carbon, protecting fields against erosion and preserving soil quality. Clearing fields of plant wastes reduces the amount of carbon stored in soil.
The effect, then, is akin to borrowing money and expecting to put it into a bank account and live off the interest. The environmental cost isn't worth the payoff.
The news isn't all bad. It also pointed out some alternative strategies. To mitigate increased carbon dioxide emissions and reduced soil carbon, the study suggests planting cover crops to fix more carbon in the soil. Cellulosic ethanol producers also could turn to alternative feedstocks, such as perennial grasses or wood residue, researchers said. Electricity from biofuel production facilities could offset more harmful emissions from coal-fueled power plants. Another alternative is to develop more fuel-efficient automobiles and significantly reduce the nation's demand for fuel, as required by the 2012 federal vehicle standards.
"If this research is accurate, and nearly all evidence suggests so, then it should be known sooner rather than later, as it will be shown by others to be true regardless," Liska said. "Many others have come close recently to accurately quantifying this emission."
The report doesn't necessarily mean that it's time to give up on seeking higher economic return for farmers. Other ag research seeks ways to get the most from a corn plant, including turning corn stover into feed pellets for livestock.
Much of the research that benefits farm country is funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reported recently on some of its recent research successes. USDA reports receiving 51 patents, filing 147 patent applications, and disclosing 180 new inventions in the last fiscal year. Projects include flour made from chardonnay grape seeds that prevents weight gain to antimicrobial packets that keep food from spoiling, efforts to protect U.S. troops in Iraq from diseases carried by sand flies and new processes for turning yard waste into bioenergy.
"Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research returns $20 to the economy. We have accelerated commercialization of federal research and government researchers are working closely with the private sector to develop new technology and transfer it to the marketplace," said Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Historically, USDA projects helped to develop frozen orange juice concentrate, permanent press cotton, mass production of penicillin during World War II, tougher turf grasses used on sports fields and improved varieties of many crops.
Recent innovations detailed in the report will help dairy farmers reduce greenhouse emissions, extract zinc fertilizer from old tires, detect West Nile virus in blood samples, make "greener" window cleaners and safely prevent produce from rotting on grocery shelves.
Science progresses incrementally. Without continued research, we wouldn't have data that industry turns into commercial applications that help the economy grow. Thanks to such innovations, for instance, the price of solar panels has fallen more than 75 percent since 2008.
Occasionally, experiments reveal dead ends. But more often they simply turn research in new directions.
Omaha World-Herald. April 25, 2014.
Right habits for lawmakers
The 2014 legislative session in Lincoln has ended and 17 lawmakers are being term-limited. Those being shown the door include Speaker Greg Adams, the Executive Board chairman and the chairmen of seven standing committees.
As a result of term limits, every two years now brings automatic change to the Legislature in terms of its membership, philosophical makeup and lawmakers' policy knowledge.
It's an appropriate occasion, then, to note some major ways the Legislature can adapt to this flux. The Legislature, after all, isn't some minor organization. It handles complex issues that impact Nebraska in wide-ranging ways.
It's no small thing, then, when a sizable portion of lawmakers are pushed out of office every two years. Indeed, the 17 going home this year make up a full onethird of the 49-member body.
Plus, this particular election season Nebraska will see significant turnover not only in the Legislature but also in the executive branch, as Nebraskans elect a new governor, attorney general and state auditor.
The encouraging news is that the Legislature has been taking a variety of sensible steps to adapt to the term-limits era.
Senior lawmakers are making a special effort to mentor new members. Freshman lawmakers are being urged to engage in the process early on. Some freshmen have been given committee vice chairmanships, to give them practical leadership experience for the future.
When The World-Herald interviewed veteran lawmakers last year about the key habits lawmakers need to embrace to keep the Legislature on an even keel over the long term, these were among those they identified: Emphasize effective communication with fellow lawmakers. Build trust. Understand the need to work out differences and accept compromise if a proposal is to move forward. Don't isolate oneself in a small political clique within the Legislature. Dive energetically into committee work. Draw on the knowledge of lobbyists and staff, but then step away and exercise independent judgment. Remember that a lawmaker is a state senator and needs to look broadly at Nebraska issues.
Those habits can stand the Legislature in good stead for the long term. It's important that each new crop of state senators learn to value those principles and put them into action.
Lincoln Journal Star. April 26, 2014.
Nebraska's troubling pay gap
The AFL-CIO's annual report on the pay gap between CEOs and workers hit home this year.
The gap in Nebraska is the second largest of all the states, trailing only Michigan, according to the union's Executive PayWatch website.
The average worker in Nebraska makes $37,204. The CEO of a publicly traded company based in the state makes 170 times that, or $6,342,786.
The gap between worker pay and CEO pay has gyrated in recent years, but over the long term the gap has widened relentlessly. In 1965, CEOs made only about 20 times the average worker.
Those years were also the golden years of the middle class in America.
Now the middle class is in decline. "The middle 60 percent of earners' share of the national pie has fallen from 53 percent in 1970 to 45 percent in 2012," Joel Kotkin wrote at Forbes.com.
Even more worrisome, one out of three people born into middle class households drop out of the classification as adults.
This year, the AFL-CIO is using the annual report to push for adoption of a higher minimum wage. The group of CEOs based in Nebraska make more than 421 times the annual earnings of a Nebraskan working at minimum wage.
The usual bromide offered in support of executive pay is that the CEOs are worth it.
That's hooey, according to reputable sources. Obermatt, a financial research firm, said that CEO pay has no relationship to either performance or market capitalization, the Economist reported in 2012.
The Institute for Policy Studies, which identifies itself as progressive, put out a report last year showing that nearly 40 percent of the men who appeared on lists ranking America's 25 highest-paid corporate leaders between 1993 and 2012 have led companies bailed out by U.S. taxpayers, been fired for poor performance or led companies charged with fraud-related activities.
"This report should put an end to any remaining sense that we have 'pay for performance' in corporate America," Sarah Anderson, co-author of the report, told the Kansas City Star.
In fact, the concurrent shrinking of the middle class, while CEO pay has skyrocketed, could be because CEOs are being rewarded for the wrong things, and in the wrong way.
This year, the institute issued a report showing that the top 20 restaurant CEOs benefited from a tax loophole that allowed them to deduct $662 million in "performance pay" from their corporate income tax, helping to cutting their corporate tax bills by $232 million. Meanwhile, their workers are paid so little they rely on government programs to get by.
It's said more frequently these days that the real scandal in Washington is not what's illegal, but what's legal. Unfortunately it's too easy to find examples in which that's the case.
Kearney Hub. April 26, 2014.
GOP hard stance gives Dems hope for more wins
A lot of talk followed the 2012 election about the need for Republicans to reinvent themselves or face more shocking setbacks in 2014. Much of the 2012 postelection talk centered on the party's image as a country club for rich business owners who are out of touch, narrow-minded, mean-spirited and irrelevant.
Some of this talk springs from the manner in which the media portrays Republicans and some of it is the work of crafty Democrats who have coined such references to Republicans as the "Party of No." Last year when GOP lawmakers, bent on repealing Obamacare, held up passage of a federal budget extension and caused the temporary shutdown of government, it only reinforced negative images of the party.
Just as they've failed to repeal Obamacare, Republicans have failed to grasp the opportunity to do something constructive about the flawed health care reform law.
Rather than taking delight in the Affordable Care Act's horrendous launch, GOP lawmakers should have seized the opportunity — while Democrats were mortified and paralyzed by their miserable failure — to repair some of health care reform's problems. There still is an opportunity for Republicans to ride to the rescue today, but none are heeding the call. Instead, the GOP is idly standing by and allowing President Obama to issue executive orders to delay the ACA's full implementation, thus delaying, until after this year's elections, its stinging consequences for the majority of Americans.
Many U.S. citizens are angry and confused by Obamacare, but the ACA's launch fiasco will not carry Republicans to victory this year unless they demonstrate the capacity to fix some of the problems.
So far, it appears the foundation of the GOP's election strategy is to stand behind worn out, mean-spirited and short-sighted tea party dogma, but getting tough on illegal immigrants, cutting back aid for the poor, and standing behind tax codes that make the rich richer on the backs of the middle class only give Democrats more ammunition.
The face of the United States is increasingly diverse. Until Republicans recognize that fact and soften their stands on social issues, they are driving voters away to the Democrats, who are rolling out legislation to pursue pay equality, immigration reform and a higher minimum wage. It's time for a kinder, gentler Republican Party.