Region 1: The Central Lowland

Due to its geological history, the Central Lowland is not a major producer of fossil fuels, but in recent years the region’s energy production has increased for two energy sources related to its topography: wind energy and corn-based ethanol. Even given these new sources, the Central Lowland of the Northwest Central is not considered a center of production. Wind energy potential is even higher to the west in the Great Plains, and the bulk of corn production for ethanol occurs to the east, in the Midwestern US.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuel production in the Central Lowland is primarily limited to a small part of the Forest City Basin in the southeast corner of Nebraska and the Salina Basin in south-central Nebraska, also known as the Central Nebraska Basin (see Figure 7.5). The Salina Basin in Nebraska did not experience the appropriate combination of heat, pressure, and organic matter to generate a large petroleum potential.

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels—oil, natural gas, and coal—are made of the preserved organic remains of ancient organisms. Coal and lignite result from the burial, compaction, and heating of preserved plant matter, whereas petroleum and natural gas originate deep underground through a slow process involving the low-grade heating of sedimentary source rocks that contain an abundance of organic matter. In either case, organic matter is only preserved when the rate of accumulation is higher than the rate of decay. This happens most often when the oxygen supply is sufficiently low that oxygen-loving bacteria cannot thrive, greatly slowing breakdown of organic matter. In this way, the organic matter can be incorporated into the buried sediment. The organics are compacted and heated with the rest of the rock, eventually transforming into fossil fuels.

The history of surface environments, evolution of life, and geologic processes beneath the surface have all influenced where fossil fuel deposits formed and accumulated. The largest oil and gas reserves were at one time nutrient-rich seas with abundant surface phytoplankton and organic rich bottom sediments; the largest coal beds were swampy environments where fallen forest trees and leaves were buried in stagnant muds.

Alternative Energy

See Chapter 8: Soils for more information about the Central Lowland’s fertile agricultural soils.

Much of the Central Lowland is part of the “corn belt,” the largest corn-producing area in the US, which supports over a hundred-billion-dollar-a-year industry that helps feed the world but that also produces plastics, biofuel, and livestock feed. In the Northwest Central, this region has become a leading area for the production of corn-based biofuels (Figure 7.6). In fact, the processing and production of crops for biofuel has been expanding here since the 1980s. Corn ethanol is the most common liquid biofuel in the United States, with the majority blended into gasoline for use in passenger vehicles. About 40% of US-grown corn is now used to produce ethanol.

Figure 7.6: Corn production (bushels) and locations of ethanol plants in the Northwest Central US by county and location (as of 2013).

Figure 7.6: Corn production (bushels) and locations of ethanol plants in the Northwest Central US by county and location (as of 2013).

Two nuclear power plants are present in the Central Lowland, both in Nebraska. The Cooper Nuclear Station and the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Generating Station are both located along the Missouri River, and they produce a combined 1244.6 megawatts of power.

See Chapter 10: Earth Hazards to learn about major Missouri River floods that endangered Nebraska’s nuclear power plants.

The Central Lowland and adjacent Great Plains regions, with their broad and flat topography, have become major sources of wind energy. North Dakota produces nearly two gigawatts of wind power, and its low population grants it the highest per capita generation of wind power in the country. Most of the state’s wind power is located in the Great Plains, which is discussed in greater detail in the next section of this chapter.