Tim Hynds / The Sioux City Journal / AP

Campaigners aim to make environment top issue for Iowa caucuses

With legal fights over clean water and a pipeline passing through Hawkeye State, climate change could be key at polls

DES MOINES, Iowa — In mid-May, nearly 200 scientists, researchers and professors came together in the Iowa college town of Ames to encourage their fellow citizens to do one thing: ask presidential candidates visiting the state their stance on climate change.

With Republican candidates wooing potential voters across the state and Hillary Clinton having just finished her first 2015 Iowa tour, they aimed to turn the agenda away from a focus on the economy, foreign relations or other issues.

“No one else has the opportunity to sit in rooms with just a few hundred or thousand people and ask questions directly to presidential candidates,” said Chris Anderson, the assistant director of Iowa State University’s climate science program and a member of the group. “We want to encourage people and give them the knowledge they need to inform their questions with facts.”

His team calls itself the Iowa Climate Statement and aims to inform Iowans about how climate change is affecting the world and the state in particular.

The group is part of a growing movement to put environmental issues on the agendas of presidential contenders campaigning in the first-in-the-nation state. And while Iowa, where the agricultural lobby is powerful, may not seem like a place to make environmental stewardship a hot-button issue, the start of the 2016 campaign season has coincided with some dramatic local fights over land and water. Some observers and campaigners believe that — combined with steady changes in Iowa’s politics and economy — that they have a shot at making environmental issues, including climate change, a key part of the debate.

One change is an increasing willingness to stand up to entrenched interests in the farming lobby. And in that regard, Bill Stowe, the chief executive of Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), is leading the way. The utility has filed a federal complaint against three northeastern Iowa counties, claiming they have failed to control nitrate runoff from agricultural operations, which has entered drinking water in Des Moines. The three counties are currently exempt from regulation because they are not currently considered point sources — something he would like to change, as half a million people rely on water supplied by DMWW and nitrates can pose a health risk, especially to fetuses and young children.  

DMWW had to incur costs nearing $1 million in order to rid the water of pollutants in 2013, when nitrate levels reached record highs. The 2013 figures are the latest publicly available statistics, and the utility estimates that “2015 costs may easily exceed that.” The utility says it needs an investment of up to $180 million to continue to remove contaminants. As of the end of May, the utility removed nitrates for 111 consecutive days in 2015, the longest streak in its history. “This is a call to arms to show that our state will continue to jeopardize the public health of its own residents if we don’t recalibrate,” Stowe said.

The suit has irked parts of rural Iowa. The state’s chapter of the Farm Bureau has come out against the action and has formed the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, through which TV attack ads are funded. Randy Feenstra, a Republican state lawmaker, has called for an economic boycott of Des Moines. And the state’s Republican Gov. Terry Branstad said, “Des Moines has declared war on rural Iowa.”

But such steps may be misguided. According to a Des Moines Register poll, 63 percent of Iowans surveyed said they support the action. While urban Iowans were more likely to agree with it, two-thirds of those in small towns and nearly half of rural residents said it’s a good idea too.

David Osterberg, a professor in environmental policy at the University of Iowa and a former state lawmaker, said, “The suit has the possibility of galvanizing people on environmental issues … It’s about people’s health. People have to actually drink it.”

The suit may represent a sea change in the way Iowans think about how to protect water, with Iowa potentially moving toward a more regulated, not voluntary, approach, as well as provoking a more general discussion about water stewardship in the state.

Several experts, including the Register’s political columnist Kathie Obradovich and former state policymaker and current executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council Ralph Rosenberg, said they expect clean water to be an increasingly salient issue in state politics as well as the presidential campaigns. “I think there’s going to be a lot of questions about ‘Do you support clean water?’ at the caucuses,” he said. “I don’t know if [Republicans] are going to embrace the EPA, but I do think they’ll talk about health.”

‘The [nitrate runoff] suit has the possibility of galvanizing people on environmental issues … It’s about people’s health. People have to actually drink it.’

David Osterberg

professor, University of Iowa

The DMWW suit isn’t the only issue stirring environmental discussions. A Texas-based company, Energy Transfer Partners, has proposed an oil pipeline across Iowa that would take crude from North Dakota’s Bakken region to a refinery in Illinois. While the project hasn’t yet received the go-ahead from state authorities, the company is already trying to persuade landowners to allow it to use their land.

Only a few have said yes. Many others are pushing back against the company’s efforts and specifically against threats to use eminent domain, a legal mechanism that allows for use of private land without consent but with compensation.

“There’s no wild space or public land in Iowa,” said Angie Carter, a representative of the Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition, made up of 25 groups. “So it’s all about private property. And Iowans really care about their property rights.” According to a March Des Moines Register poll, 74 percent of Iowans are against eminent domain use for the pipeline and another energy project.

The groups in the anti-Bakken coalition represent farm owners, pro-private-property groups, faith-based organizations and environmentalists who are trying to use the focus on private property rights to discuss larger environmental issues. “The [DMWW] lawsuit and pipeline give people an opportunity to talk about land in a different way,” she said. “Affected farmers aren’t just talking about how this could affect yield per acre, but future generations ... want to farm and live there and have a healthy life. I haven’t heard people talk about these things in a long time.”

Osterberg thinks concerns about the pipeline could provoke political discussions too, with unexpected questions potentially arising at the caucuses, especially with Republicans who are traditionally friendly to the interests of the energy industry. “The same kind of tea party types who are going to be at the Republican caucus are also the ones who don’t want the Bakken pipeline under farmers’ land,” he said.

GOP contender Rick Perry may stand out as a particular target of ire in the party, given that he sits on the board of Energy Transfer Partners. When he spoke about the Keystone pipeline and the importance of energy independence at the Iowa Ag Summit earlier this year, farmers in the crowd booed — a reaction at odds with Iowans’ traditional image of being polite.


‘There’s no wild space or public land in Iowa. So it’s all about private property. And Iowans really care about their property rights.’

Angie Carter

Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition

There are other issues that may make environmental issues more salient in the campaigns. The state is a national leader in wind production, with nearly 30 percent of Iowa’s electricity coming from the sector. Other renewable energy sectors are important too, with nearly 50 percent of the state’s corn going to ethanol. The state is increasingly looking to expand its solar sector. “If you just put environmental issues with a list of other issues on a poll and ask [voters] to rank them in order of importance, environment is not a top-tier issue, even among Democrats,” said Obradovich. “But if you start picking that apart and you look at different ways environment plays into other issues like the economy and energy, those kind of issues are going to be important in Iowa.”

Environmentalists like Osterberg and Carter agree that making the link to issues most important to Iowans — be it private property or jobs — is key to getting Iowans to take an interest in the environment. But a strong focus on the local may harm efforts to make issues of global import prominent in the caucuses. Anderson points out that while there’s broad support for all different types of renewable energy, “that may not be married to climate change issues, because it’s become so politically polarized. Rather than being an accelerator, it’s a barrier.”

A similar case may be true with the Bakken pipeline. While most Iowans are against the use of eminent domain, just over half support the pipeline otherwise. And commenting on the DMWW suit, Democratic state lawmaker Joe Bolkom said, “I think it does reflect the frustration that a lot of people feel about the lack of progress on environmental issues. But could that turn into some sort of political movement? Probably not.”

But campaigners are still going to try. Candidates can expect pressure from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer and his group, NextGen Climate, which put millions of dollars behind pro-environment candidates running in the 2014 U.S. Senate races. Most of them lost, including Bruce Braley in Iowa, who bid against conservative and anti-EPA candidate Joni Ernst. Despite the defeat, the NextGen team remained in Iowa, and Steyer has a presence in the state. He recently spoke at an Earth Day event in Des Moines, where he called on candidates to support clean energy and told the Register he expects to spend more time there during the presidential campaign season.

Citizens Climate Lobby, a national group made up of volunteers, is in Iowa too and is heeding Anderson’s call to approach presidential contenders. Questions on the environment and climate change are going to be virtually impossible to avoid for all candidates visiting Iowa — Republican or Democratic. “We’ve always had a conversation about asking these questions and the recognition that it doesn’t get talked about if nobody asks it, but we haven’t been this coordinated before across the state,” said Barbara Eckstein, a member of the group’s Iowa City chapter, which has nearly 300 members.

“For the first time, there’s a better organization of people bird-dogging all candidates,” she added.

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