December 6, 2021

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Biden climate plan could impact Kansas agriculture, rural broadband

President-elect Joe Biden released his climate change plan earlier this year calling for action to be taken in departments across the federal government to increase efforts to mitigate climate change, including taking actions to shift to clean energy and achieving carbon neutrality.

Several world leaders celebrated Biden’s presidential win and specifically mentioned their hopes for the future administration’s work on climate change and the environment. It’s a stark contrast to President Donald Trump, who has not created a climate change plan and has rolled back more than 100 environmental rules.

For Kansas, Biden’s plan will likely have the biggest impact on agriculture, clean energy, broadband expansion, electric vehicle access and energy efficiency in buildings.

However, the plan is not set in stone. The biggest obstacle to implementing the $1.7 trillion plan could come down to which party controls the Senate, a decision that will not be finalized until January.

Advocates believe the plan is an opportunity to revitalize the state into a more environmentally conscious place but also brings the opportunity to help Kansas continue as a leader in green energy.

“The upside is as pretty major both in the adaptation, protecting ourselves from the effects of climate change, but also, capitalizing on the opportunity that comes with renovating America to be more conservationist,” said Zack Pistoria, the Kansas lobbyist for the Sierra Club, a national environmental organization.

Currently, Kansas is one of 17 states that does not have a climate plan or does not have plans to make one.

Energy

Biden’s climate plan lists an aggressive move to generate clean electricity made in the U.S. to the end of creating a carbon pollution-free power sector in the next 15 years. This includes a plan to reduce the cost of clean energy technology and building those technologies in the U.S.

Warren Martin, executive director of Kansas Strong, which represents Kansas oil and natural gas producers, wants to make sure that any climate change plans won’t negatively affect small producers whose livelihood depends on oil or natural gas.

“We have a unique oil and gas industry here because large oil companies really do not operate in Kansas,” Martin said. “We have one of the largest conglomerates of independent oil and gas producers of any region in the world. They’re small mom and pop operators. The average oil company here in Kansas has three employees.”

While not currently a part of Biden’s plan, if artificial restrictions are placed on their businesses, it will increase costs and make their jobs harder, Martin said.

“If you look on the national average, our natural gas prices are higher than the national average, and that’s because we import natural gas,” Martin said. “It is in our best interest to keep energy prices low and to keep product prices low, for us to continue to be able to effectively produce all the gas here in the state.”

Advocates of green energy in the state see this as an opportunity for Kansas to continue to lead the country in the renewable energy sector and expand job opportunities there.

“Since 2005, our state has reduced CO2 by 50%, adding thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in capital investment as a leader in wind energy,” said Dorothy Barnett, executive director of the Climate and Energy Project, a Kansas nonprofit that seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Kansas can lead on solar as well.”

Kansas could be a top recipient or priority state for the country to invest in because the state is already a leader in wind energy and has high solar potential. Advocates were particularly enthusiastic about the opportunity for solar energy to grow in Kansas.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface of solar,” Pistoria said. “Economic productivity of clean energy in Kansas has been overall positive and steady over the last 10 years especially, while (other industries) have been up and down. The clean energy economy in Kansas has been steady and positive.”

Broadband expansion

Biden wants to create jobs by hiring people to rebuild infrastructure, which includes roads, bridges, water systems and, likely most notably, expanding broadband access to every U.S. household.

Expanding rural broadband service can help mitigate climate change, as it makes possible the use of technology for precision agriculture and forestry and is another step in building a resilient and modern electric grid that can help with energy efficiency, according to a study from the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“This digital divide needs to be closed everywhere, from lower-income urban schools to rural America, to many older Americans as well as those living on tribal lands,” Bidens’ plan reads. “Just like rural electrification several generations ago, universal broadband is long overdue and critical to broadly shared economic success.”

Kansas has already identified broadband development as a problem for rural communities, and both Governor Laura Kelly and Lt. Governor Lynn Rodgers have championed the issue.

“Gov. Kelly really made it happen,” said Stanley Adams, Director of Kansas’ Office of Broadband Development. “We had been working on broadband for quite some time but when she came out and voiced her support, things really started moving.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state committed $85 million over the next 10 years for state-funded broadband improvements –– $5 million to be spent each year for the first three years, and $10 million for each year after –– and announced an additional $60 million from the CARES Act a few weeks ago.

But this is not enough, Adams said. Federal agencies spend upwards of $5 billion a year on broadband deployment and most of Kansas that need broadband development are in rural communities, which are more sparsely populated and therefore it’s more expensive per person.

“In rural communities, you can have service, technically, but if you go to those communities they’ll tell you ‘We don’t have service because it’s so bad,’” Adams said. “The pandemic highlighted a need, not just for broadband, but high-quality broadband…And in some rural communities, you don’t have a choice. It’s such low quality.”

Additionally, it’s not just an issue of whether Americans have access, but the quality of access, especially as people are working or attending school from home.

This is especially worrying to education advocates as Kansas students who don’t have access at home to quality internet are struggling to complete their work. Sometimes students, after school closes, have to finish their homework in the parking lots of fast-food restaurants, relying on their internet access.

“Would you say it’s fair that some students get to take the textbook home and study whenever and wherever from their home, while other students have to only access that textbook if they drive to the school? Of course, that’s not equal. Of course, that’s not fair,” said Marcus Baltzell, communications director for the Kansas National Education Association. “That’s the situation many students are facing right now, and that’s a rural and an urban issue.”

Expanding broadband could also encourage rural development as businesses might be more inclined to move there if there’s quality internet, according to Dave Heinemann, governmental relations for Schools for Quality Education, an organization that represents rural schools in Kansas.

Agriculture

Conservation and “climate-smart agriculture” is another industry where Biden wants to create jobs under his climate plan. For Kansas, this plan is realistic and already fits in with current steps being taken, according to Ryan Flickner, senior director of advocacy for the Kansas Farm Bureau.

“Farmers and ranchers have been the first adopters of sustainable and environmentally friendly practices as they need healthy soil and land to provide for their future growing needs,” Flickner said. “Consumers also are already moving to incentivize these changes.”

Matt Teagarden, the CEO of the Kansas Livestock Association, favors Biden’s plan compared to the Green New Deal, a package of legislation with aggressive mandates to address climate change proposed by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Biden’s climate plan is far more favorable for Kansas farmers and ranchers because it leaves room for them to continue doing what they’ve been doing, as the industry has become more efficient and environmentally friendly, Teagarden said.

“That’s what makes our folks nervous is when you use the wrong assumptions to begin with and then demonize folks that are producing food for a hungry nation and a hungry world. It really puts the defenses up quickly,” Teagarden said. “If there are incentives to adopt new practices, if there’s support to invest in some of this infrastructure that will help with efficiency and sustainability, I think that would be much more welcome by farmers and ranchers.”

One of the biggest concerns with Biden’s plan for those who work in agriculture is blanket regulations.

“Production agriculture in a semi-arid climate like western Kansas is very different than production agriculture in Iowa,” Flickner said. “Treating them the same via regulations or incentive payments doesn’t work because of how different they farm. Both areas can expand upon sustainability and mitigate weather risks; they just do it very differently.”

In rural communities, Biden also wants to create 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and gas wells and cleaning coal, hardrock and uranium mines to reduce toxic leaks and environmental damage.

Better buildings

Over the next four years, Biden’s plan includes upgrading 4 million buildings, constructing 1.5 million sustainable homes and weatherizing 2 million homes over the country. It isn’t clear if certain areas of the country will be prioritized over others.

Biden also has plans to “spur the building retrofit and efficient-appliance manufacturing supply chain by funding direct cash rebates and low-cost financing to upgrade and electrify home appliances and install more efficient windows, which will cut residential energy bills.”

The plan will help local and state governments save money by reducing pollution, weatherizing and upgrading energy systems in hospitals, schools, public housing and municipal buildings.

“That has a wide appeal, especially in rural Kansas, where affordable housing is a significant concern,” Pistoria said. “Retrofitting buildings to save energy will help, obviously, with an environmental footprint, but also with the taxpayer burden. That’s something that’s talked about over the past ten years about saving taxpayers’ money by providing the opportunity for efficient buildings.”

Electric Vehicles Charging Stations

Biden plans to create 1 million jobs in the auto industry, expanding the use of electric cars and installing 500,000 electric charging stations across the country.

“These investments are a key part of Biden’s commitment to reinvent the American transportation system from the factory line to the electric vehicle charging station while promoting strong labor, training, and installation standards,” according to Biden’s climate change plan.

Advocates see this as an opportunity for rural revitalization.

“If we have charging stations, especially in Kansas, let’s put those in rural communities, so when people travel across the country and look for a charger, they stop in the little town,” Pistoria said. “Then they take a walk downtown and then they can shop and pick up a souvenir or buy some groceries at the local grocery store, as opposed to just staying on the interstate the whole time. I just that the charging stations will help with tourism in Kansas.”

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Sarah Spicer reports for The Wichita Eagle and focuses on climate change in the region. She joined the Eagle in June 2020 as a Report for America corps member. A native Kansan, Spicer has won awards for her investigative reporting from the Kansas Press Association, the Chase and Lyon County Bar Association and the Kansas Sunshine Coalition.

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