Proposed state rule changes rekindle biomass debate
AMHERST — Two dozen people urged energy officials Thursday to stick with rules they believe made Massachusetts an environmental leader early this decade, after controversy over proposed biomass plants led to a groundbreaking study on the impact of burning wood to generate electricity.
Changing rules now, they told a hearing called by the state Department of Energy Resources, would accelerate the climate crisis, reward dirty energy generators and advance a proposed biomass plant that would threaten public health in Western Massachusetts.
"I did not think we'd be back here," said Mary S. Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity in Pelham, who testified against the new rules in the second of four planned hearings.
The DOER is taking comment on draft regulations that would change the circumstances under which biomass would be eligible for subsidies under what's known as the Renewable Portfolio Standard. The move followed a state law change last year that said use of renewable fuels covered by the standard must increase 2 percent annually from 2020 to 2029, instead of by 1 percent.
The department says the shifts would "improve the regulation, streamline requirements, reduce costs, and eliminate unnecessary or onerous provisions." The changes were prompted by a 2015 executive order by Gov. Charlie Baker ordering a review of executive branch regulations.
But to some in Western Massachusetts, the changes ignore the science they say enabled the state to be the first in the nation to conclude that burning trees as fuel for the generation of electricity increases greenhouse gas emissions.
Speakers argued during a two-hour hearing at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that the change runs afoul of Baker's promise, alongside other U.S. governors, to back the Paris Climate Change Agreement. One principal of the Paris accords is to protect the ability of forests to sequester carbon as a way to slow global warming.
Critics say the draft rules would accelerate logging and provide an undeserved incentive to biomass power plants, claiming such plants release more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal-fired power generators.
Jessica Ridlen, a spokeswoman for the department, said in response to a question from The Eagle about the draft rules that climate goals will be met.
"The Baker-Polito Administration remains committed to reducing the Commonwealth's greenhouse gas emissions, meeting our targets under the Global Warming Solutions Act," she said, "and lowering energy costs for ratepayers through the promotion of renewable energy technologies."
Several speakers argued Thursday in favor of the draft rules, including Evan Dell'Olio of Easthampton, an attorney who has worked in the forest products industry and said he sees a role for "responsible biomass."
He praised the DOER for shaping safeguards in its draft regulations, including rules on permitting for biomass plants, and noted that any modern society needs a place to dispose of woody biomass trimmed from public ways or transmission lines, rather than sending it to landfills.
And a forester, John Clarke of Holden, said the department's rules changes would help create a market for wood chips that might otherwise rot and release its carbon anyway. "These fuels are renewable and will replace fossil fuels," he said.
But most of those who testified to a panel of DOER officials assailed the draft rules as a "misguided" effort that would weaken the state's leadership on climate change and harm forests.
Lilly Lombard of Westhampton said she has been approached by loggers interested in cutting on her family's 165 acres in the Mount Pisgah Range. She said she expects such requests to intensify if the state provides new subsidies for biomass generators.
"We feel that forests perform services that go well beyond the fuel contained in their trees," Lombard said.
David Roitman of Florence, who sits on the steering committee of Climate Action Now Massachusetts, said that in proposing increased use of wood as fuel locally, the DOER goes against international climate recommendations, including the view that public policy must cut carbon emissions by half in the next decade.
"Calling biomass a renewable fuel, I'm afraid, is misleading," Roitman said.
Both state Sen. Jo Commerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, submitted testimony in opposition to the rule changes.
Domb said the state should not be promoting biomass fuels. Commerford said her constituents ask her to advocate for the planet.
"We're here today because our planet is in crisis," Commerford said. She urged DOER not to roll back its rules.
Instead, Commerford praised rules passed in 2012, under the Patrick administration, after the Manomet study linked use of biomass fuels to increased greenhouse gas emissions.
"That's based on science," she said. "We have to cut the greenhouse gas emissions and take the CO2 out of the atmosphere. The DOER proposal heads us in the wrong direction. We should be incentivizing truly renewable energy."
Susan Theberge of Climate Action Now faulted the timing of the draft rules, saying they come as the planet lurches toward climate disaster. "DOER is seeking to roll back hard-fought health and safety regulations," she said. "Forests are one of our last, best hopes."
In a message to "stakeholders," the department claims that while the changes cut "reporting requirements that were deemed onerous or administratively burdensome," measures to protect forests would remain.
"The stringency of sustainable forestry requirements for forest derived fuels have been maintained," the statement says.
Several speakers questioned who was to gain most from the draft changes enabling greater use of biomass for fuels, the public or private businesses?
"We shouldn't be making changes to regulations (in a way that) really benefits corporations," said Jeffrey Mazur of Amherst, who works at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.
That call was echoed by Miriam Kurland, of Goshen, who urged the DOER representatives to listen to people, not the business community.
"I just want our governmental agencies to stop working for greedy industries that are trying to make public policy," she said.
Glen Ayers, of Greenfield, a retired health official and forestry activist, criticized the department for raiding the state's clean energy fund to provide incentives that he believes will harm woodlands.
"This is a corporate-welfare program," Ayers said, adding that the proposals challenge public faith in the rule-making process and in government. "This is something we should be outraged about. The people are speaking and if you don't listen to them, you'll know what happens."
Ellen Moyer, an environmental engineer and author, called the draft rules a betrayal of work conducted by hundreds of volunteers opposed to early biomass plant proposals in the region. She noted that more than 70,000 people signed a petition to create a ballot question opposed to having the state subsidize biomass power plants. That question was pulled as parties negotiated instead for the Manomet study — a result that deserves to hold firm, Moyer said.
"Our policy should reflect this current science, people," she said. "Our forests work hard for us. State government needs to rearrange its priorities."
Booth, director of the Pelham policy institute, also recalled hours of grassroots activism that helped forge existing rules that limit use of biomass to plants to generate heat as well as electricity.
"Here we are again. Why is that?" she asked. Then she answered her question, saying the draft rules — which she said would "gut" current policy — are the result of the department not being satisfied with the amount of wood being burned.
She noted estimates that say carbon emissions must be cut by 20 billion tons by 2030. "We're not going to do that by sending forest carbon in the atmosphere and not count it," she said.
"We're better than that. The Massachusetts regulations are a model of how policy should work. It is regarded internationally. You've got to withdraw these regulations. It's just wrong. The process is morally wrong," she said.
The third hearing will be held Friday from 1 to 3 p.m. at Mount Wachusett Community College, 444 Green St. in Gardner. The final hearing is set for 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. May 29 at the UMass Center at Springfield, 1500 Main St. in Springfield.
Comments can be emailed to thermal.DOER@mass.gov or sent by mail to the DOER, 100 Cambridge St., Suite 1020, Boston MA 02114. Comments will be accepted until 5 p.m. June 7.
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.