Deval's Green Blues

Long supported by the state's environmental organizations, Governor Patrick has started a war with them over biomass
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 31, 2011

green blues


Environmental groups have been stalwart supporters of Governor Deval Patrick since early in his tenure — though they have quibbled on the details, those groups have been thrilled with the legislation and regulations spearheaded by the Patrick administration, which have placed Massachusetts on the leading edge of responsible energy development and usage.

>> READ: "Biomass FAQ" by Khadijah M. Britton <<

But now, just nine months after helping him get re-elected, those same groups are on the verge of turning against him, en masse — all over one fairly obscure document the administration will release sometime in the next few weeks.

The document in question contains the final regulations for the state's biomass subsidies, and according to environmentalists, the Patrick administration is planning to reverse its pre-election position — and fly in the face of good science — for the benefit of a handful of developers who stand to make money off of burning trees for energy.

Those regulations will come at the expense of ordinary electricity-utility ratepayers, they say, who will be forced to pay extra to subsidize a practice that does no environmental good — and instead opens the way for clear-cutting of forests and carbon-spewing incineration.

Environmental groups have held their tongues, publicly, about these "woody biomass" regulations so far, hoping to influence the final decisions by playing nice.

They aren't sounding nice anymore. Convinced that the administration is going to slip out industry-friendly regulations while the new casino bill distracts everyone's attention, they are now ready to put public pressure on their former friend.

"It is deeply troubling that the Patrick administration would jettison good policy and good science," says Susan Reid, vice-president and director of the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) of Massachusetts.

"We will be very disappointed and very upset" if the administration doesn't reverse course, says James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club. "It is going to indicate that the industry had a real hand in weakening these regulations."

Welcome to the tree wars.


SCIENCE AND POLITICS

clear cutting
CLEAR CUTTING would be one of the
unwelcome drawbacks to proposed biomass
regulations, critics say.

When he took office in 2007, Patrick made an immediate priority of clean energy. He combined the environment and energy departments, and named Ian Bowles to lead the new Executive Office of Environment and Energy (EEOE). Bowles took the lead with several innovative laws, including one in 2008 meant to kick-start clean-energy industries, by providing ratepayer subsidies to forms of energy that produce little or no greenhouse-gas emissions.

Including woody biomass was generally uncontroversial at the time; only a few diehard environmentalists were warning that it wasn't really the environmental boon the industry long claimed.

Both the science and the politics quickly changed. Politically, the anti-biomass Cassandras — led by activist Meg Sheehan — gathered signatures for a state ballot initiative banning the practice. The administration badly wanted to nip that in the bud — it would have made Patrick look like the bad guy against his own liberal base.

To get Sheehan to back down, the administration agreed to commission a study on woody biomass. As it turned out, the extremists were right — the "Manomet Report" cast serious doubts on whether woody biomass is clean at all. (See sidebar, "Biomass FAQ")

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  Topics: Talking Politics , Deval Patrick, Massachusetts, environmentalists,  More more >
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