Biomass report draws ire of foresters and environmentalists

Biomass report draws ire of foresters and environmentalists

MONTPELIER – The final draft of a report to the Legislature on the use of woody biomass in the state of Vermont won praise, vehement condemnation and everything in between Tuesday night.

A 15-member panel established by the 2009 Legislature met 27 times over three years to develop 45 recommendations and a lengthy and in-depth report on the benefits and risks of using woody biomass — pellets and wood chips harvested from low-grade wood, blowdowns and logging residues such as tree tops. It also tackled the issue of what standards, guidelines and actions the state should take.

The key recommendations include:

• Use of biomass resources for the most energy efficient applications, such as heat generation
• Long- and short-term monitoring of harvesting and forest health;
• The creation of markets for low-grade wood equally around the state; and
• Promotion of energy efficient home heating with wood.

The wide-ranging draft was aired publicly on Tuesday at the Statehouse before about 30 people and it drew a broad variety of opinions.

No one was more outspoken in his critique of the report than Jonathan Wood, a former member of the panel who served as Secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources under the administration of Republican Gov. James Douglas.

Speaking in unusually harsh terms, Wood called the draft everything from “disingenuous” to “disgraceful” and even seemed to imply he would take legal action if his name was not taken off the report, so strongly was he opposed to it.

“I am concerned about my name being on this report. I want a disclaimer,” he said, then added, “I will take whatever action I have to.

“I think this is the worst thing that has happened to forest management in a long time,” Wood said.

The outburst drew a tart response after the meeting from longtime Sen. Virginia Lyons, D- Williston, co-chairwoman of the panel and chairwoman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee in the Senate. Lyons accused Wood of being “disingenuous” in his criticism and essentially said politics was in play, since Wood lost his post as head of ANR with the election of Democrat Peter Shumlin.

Some of Wood’s criticisms were echoed by others. Critics said the “voluntary” guidelines in the report amounted to de facto mandatory rules that could harm an already stressed wood harvesting industry and put the state at a disadvantage with other New England states that don’t have such rules.

Others like forest consultant Steve Hardy of Brattleboro called some of the proposed biomass harvesting guidelines “well intentioned” but arcane and unworkable in the reality of the forests. He pointed out ambiguities in the draft plan about how much low-grade wood should be removed from any given tract.

“How are we going to do this on the ground? It’s an interesting concept but how do you implement it?” he said.

He also cautioned Vermont would be put “at a disadvantage” by stricter guidelines than other states, noting wood chips are shipped across state borders and suppliers can get them anywhere.

“What are you going to do, put guards at the border?” he asked.

Wood made the same point, saying Vermont “is not an island.” The report, in his view, would result in “a great deal of additional regulation,” land fragmentation and discouragement of the biomass industry. He also criticized the three-week comment period as disgracefully short.

Lyons, however, said the draft report is the starting process, not the end, and everyone will have a chance to weigh in the Legislature. “Once the report is complete, it is just a report. It has no teeth,” she said.

While some specifics of the draft drew fire, many of those who testified said use of wood biomass was essential to Vermont forest health and jobs in the wood industry.

“Biomass harvesting is really the best thing since white bread,” said consulting forester Robbo Holleran of Chester.

Holleran said the report’s middle-range estimate of 900,000 tons of green surplus low-grade wood for biomass is grossly underestimated and should be as high as 5 million green tons. Higher biomass use would improve the poor market for low-grade wood and foster higher-quality wood growth on the state’s 4.5 million acres of forest, he said.

Existing biomass supplies could support many biomass uses for a long time, according to Holleran. He cautioned against installing too many rules and regulations on biomass harvesting.

“It has to be profitable for people to be able to do it. It’s very capital intensive,” he said.

Some environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, the Partnership for Policy Integrity and the Vermont Sierra Club raised concerns about the impacts of biomass generating plants on air quality and carbon emissions and urged more study. They also said that until more is known about biomass demand and the amount of the resource, there should be a moratorium on any large utility scale biomass generating plants in the state.

Mollie Matteson of the Center for Biological Diversity said Vermont already has the “highest asthma rates in the country” and new biomass generation plants would hurt air quality and push the limits of sustainable harvesting of Vermont’s forests.

The 800-pound biomass gorilla in the elegant Statehouse Chamber was a controversial proposal by Beaverwood Energy for a 29 megawatt electrical biomass generation plant in Fair Haven that would be coupled with a wood pellet manufacturing facility. The proposal, which would create 50 jobs, drew both praise for providing a badly needed market in southern Vermont for low-grade wood and criticism since electrical generation is the least efficient use of biomass chips.

The draft report doesn’t address the Beaverwood proposal.

Sen. Lyons pointed out in an interview afterwards that the plant is already in the permitting process before the Vermont Public Service Board and wasn’t proposed when the panel was given its charge by the Legislature.

Several speakers, however, addressed one of the key issues in the biomass draft relating to Beaverwood, which is whether the state should endorse inefficient use of biomass for purposes such as electrical generation.

Barry Bernstein of East Calais, who has a long involvement in selling and promoting biomass heating systems for schools in the state, cited figures that biomass in heating is 80 percent efficient, while electrical generation is only 15 percent to 25 percent efficient. He cautioned that the state place a premium on thermal uses over power generation.

Beaverwood is projected to use 500,000 tons a year of biomass and has said it will achieve 50 percent efficiency, partly by using heat to dry the wood pellets produced at the plant. Two other biomass facilities currently are on line in the state, in Ryegate and Burlington.

Tim Maker, also of Calais and a biomass energy expert, agreed with Bernstein. With oil supplies declining, Vermont’s forests will face “unprecedented pressure” in the future and biomass should be reserved for the highest efficiency purpose. He urged raising the draft proposal’s minimum 50 percent efficiency level for biomass plants

Maker disagreed with Wood. In his view, more regulation is needed.

“Let the chips fall where they may, no pun intended,” he said.

“We can’t let the wood resource go to the highest bidder,” he said.

Phil Stannard, a forest management consultant from southern Vermont, said he was a strong supporter of biomass use, whether for generation or wood pellets. “There’s a vast surplus of bad wood, vastly undermanaged and poorly managed forests,” he said.

While Stannard and others argued there was a big surplus and the state needed more markets for low-grade wood, Ann Ingerson of the Wilderness Society said Vermont should cautiously allocate its biomass supplies. She also urged the panel to boost monitoring, look at air quality issues more fully and agreed for the need to stand firm on efficiency standards.

Josh Schlossberg, a biomass energy opponent, raised an issue not mentioned in the report, that invasive species such as the emerald ash borer can be transported live with woodchips.

In comments made in a letter, the Vermont Woodlands Association said invasive subdivisions and parcelization of Vermont forests are far worse threats. Sam Miller, a VWA member, said “judicious” use of biomass is not a great threat and could be a good management tool. The association said the report didn’t focus enough on improving the residential firewood market and small stove and furnace efficiency.

One thing that was clear from the extensive comments is that there is plenty of divergence of opinion on biomass from all the stakeholders in the state, as well as general agreement on its potential — if not its eventual best uses.

Greg Chase, a consulting forester from Hartland, urged the panel to have a little patience and let the process of coming up with guidelines on the whole new arena of biomass run its course.

“There’s been lots of changes in the 200 years that we’ve been here. This (biomass) is just a 20-year phenomenon,” he said.

Andrew Nemethy

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