Deval's Green Blues

by David S. BernsteinThe Boston Phoenix
August 31st, 2011

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.

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

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 "Biomass FAQ" by Khadijah M. Britton)

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. 

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.

"We understand that what we do here has an impact on what other states and other nations do," says EEOE's Williams.

Environmentalists, while insisting they are concerned foremost about the commonwealth, are not shy about their concern for the effects throughout New England and the country.

The same can be said for some on the industry side. Energy conglomerate GDF Suez, which lobbies Massachusetts on a wide range of matters, more than tripled that spending beginning in 2008. Its director of government and regulatory affairs, Joe Dalton, has written that the Manomet study "essentially turned biomass science on its head," and argued that the impending Massachusetts standards could hurt the company's woody biomass plans throughout New England.

The far-reaching effects may be influencing the Patrick administration's calculations. Regardless, the trouble he is about to face over the issue is right in his back yard — with some people who have been, until now, among his most loyal friends.


members sign in