Deval's Green Blues

By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  August 31, 2011

Based on that, Bowles issued a letter, in July 2010, directing his commissioner of energy resources to draw up regulations allowing woody biomass to qualify for subsidies only if it met certain efficiency standards — that is, if companies could get a lot of energy without harvesting very many trees.

Those are the long-awaited regulations that EEOE spokesperson Catherine Williams says will be finalized "early this fall," following a couple of iterations. If you ask environmentalists, those regulations are going to be a total capitulation to industry. If you ask biomass proponents, the rules will still be a heavy-handed overreaction to the Manomet findings. Williams insists that the review is ongoing, and all input is being taken seriously.

Along the path from the Bowles letter to now, groups like CLF, Mass Audubon, Massachusetts Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action have moved from behind-the-scenes lobbying while publicly saying they are "encouraged" by the process, to finally drawing public lines in the sand.

Last month, those organizations, along with several others, sent a letter to the administration complaining that the proposed regulations "would represent a dangerous return to discredited practices in the basic science of biomass carbon accounting."

It's hard for them to ignore what has changed, politically, along the way: Patrick went from being a vulnerable candidate for re-election to a final-term governor who doesn't need them. Also, Bowles left the administration, as did his energy resource commissioner.


BEYOND THE COMMONWEALTH

Meanwhile, a heavy lobbying effort has kept up in favor of woody biomass, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent each year since the clean-energy legislation was passed in 2008. Big-name Beacon Hill firms, including ML Strategies (the lobbying arm of Mintz Levin) and Rasky Baerlein, have led the charge.

Some environmental advocates point a finger in particular at ML Strategies's David O'Connor, who left EEOE shortly after Patrick and Bowles took office, and quickly began lobbying for biomass interests.

O'Connor argues that the environmentalists are overreacting. "The suggestion that these regulations have been watered down is just a mischaracterization of the process," he says.

Environmentalists are trying to unfairly clamp down on woody biomass, O'Connor charges, by placing impossible burdens on the industry. He also points to other studies that are considerably less negative toward the industry than the Manomet Report.

What's striking is that, on the surface, all of this seems like quibbling over peanuts. Nothing in these regulations will prevent anyone from burning as much woody biomass as they please — the question is only whether Massachusetts ratepayers should be forced to subsidize them. 

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

And most people involved argue that, under even the laxest of the proposed versions, the standards will prevent any large-scale biomass development in Massachusetts. (Many of the environmentalists are still wary.)

Much of the impetus, at this point, appears to lie beyond the commonwealth's borders, in the impact these regulations will have on other states' decisions — and ultimately on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which recently announced a three-year deferral on regulating carbon emissions from biomass.

Massachusetts's regulations are being watched closely, and will serve as the upper benchmark for everyone else — the high bar going forward, McCaffrey says. It may not be hyperbole to suggest that the Massachusetts regulations could effectively slam the door on the woody biomass industry, or leave an opening for it to flourish.

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