Biomass controversy boils over in Climate Council

Charges of unethical behavior

McNeil generating plant

by Rob Roper

The Vermont legislature set up the twenty-three-member Climate Council under the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA). The Council’s role was and is to come up with a plan for reducing Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050. One controversial element in this discussion is what role biomass fuels (wood chips, methane from farm animal waste, etc.) should play, especially for electricity generation.

Opponents of allowing biomass to be counted as clean, “renewable” energy – and thus able generate valuable “carbon credits” under the proposed Clean Heat Standard bill rather than be obligated to buy them – is that burning anything creates CO2 and is therefore not “clean,” that the formulae that determine biomass to be clean and renewable are highly flawed and perhaps politically motivated, and incentivizing biomass production encourages agricultural practices that have negative environmental impacts beyond emissions. They charge that calling biomass “renewable” is really just a case of “greenwashing.”

The data shows that the McNeil plant annually emits CO2 emissions equivalent to most of the passenger cars in Vermont.

Annette Smith, Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE)

Supporters of biomass options under the GWSA agree that it is not a perfect solution, but a necessary bridge between where we are now, burning mostly oil, natural gas, and coal to generate electricity, and a future that is entirely dominated by things like wind and solar.

To bring some resolution to this controversy, the Climate Council created a Biomass Task Group to come up with a recommended policy for the full Council to consider and, presumably, include in its recommendations to the legislature and agencies charged with carrying out GWSA policy for guidance as they do the work of meeting the greenhouse gas reduction targets.

The Task Group did its job, and recommended in its draft report:

  1. New electric-led generation biomass facilities in the State of Vermont should not be used.
  2. The Ryegate and McNeil facilities should not be expanded to increase the currently permitted hourly output capacity, physically or otherwise. Furthermore, the facilities should strive to use less biomass overall than they do currently.
  3. The Vermont Climate Council recommends that the State plan and prepare for the phase out of wood biomass electricity generation at the McNeil and Ryegate facilities and the phase up of other energy sources, complemented with other important actions such as efficiency and consumption reduction.

This recommendation, however, is not politically popular.

In Chittenden County, home to seven state senators and over thirty state representatives, including the Speaker of the House, Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) and the Senate President Pro Tem, Philip Baruth (D/P-Chittenden), the McNeil plant is not just a powerful constituent, but also a critical component in supplying electricity to residents and businesses. Far from considering shutting it down, Burlington is in the process of a $40 million plus expansion of the McNeil plant, running steam pipes under the streets to the UVM Medical Center, and the Intervale, and University of Vermont – the senate president’s employer.

If McNeil were shut down, it raises questions about how the Queen City and surrounding communities would keep their lights on. If McNeil’s biomass electricity generation were classified as non-renewable, and thus could neither be counted toward mandated renewable energy targets nor used to generate carbon or renewable energy “credits,” the electric bills of Burlington ratepayers would skyrocket.

Additionally, supplying wood chips for the McNeil and Ryegate plants is a financially stabilizing sideline for Vermont’s wood products industry, creating a critical market for what would otherwise be a waste product.

If the result of implementing the Global Warming Solutions Act – regardless of what the science says — were to mean causing an electricity shortage and price spike in our most populous city/county, negatively impacting powerful, politically favored entities such as Burlington Electric, Vermont Gas, and UVM, while pushing the forestry and wood products industry into an oppositional political alliance with small heating fuel dealers, the GWSA would more than likely cease to be a viable state policy.

As such, a formal recommendation by the full Council to shutter McNeil and scratch biomass off the list of acceptable fuels would be politically disastrous for the politicians who pushed it in the first place. So, the Biomass Task Force’s recommendation, has been repeatedly, month after month, blocked from coming before the full Climate Council for review or even discussion.

Frustration by those who worked on the report, such as Judy Dow, and those who supported the Task Group’s efforts has been simmering for months and came to a boil at the March 6th meeting of the Climate Council’s Steering Committee.

Cheryl Joy Lipton, a regular observer of Climate Council meetings, called the Council out during the public comment period. “A really big thing is the VCC [Climate Council] was supposed to discuss [the Biomass Task Group’s recommendations at the March meeting…. For many months it’s been put off. A really long time. They were supposed to be talked about in November. They were supposed to have been talked about in December, and then again in January. I can’t remember now all the different things that have happened to put them off, but when it happens over and over and over again, like four or five or six months, it starts to look not very good….”

The primary excuse for the delay in discussion has been the fact that multiple seats on the Climate Council were left unfilled by the Speaker of the House and it would be unfair to discuss a key issue without those voices represented. While there is merit to this argument, it raises the question if the Speaker’s lack of action was an intentional way to shut down discussion of the issue, at least during the legislative session. As it is now, the Biomass Task Group recommendations have been delayed again, won’t be taken up until April – if then — and the legislature adjourns in May.

Lipton’s comments also drew attention to the impact this delay is having on policy formation and implementation, “Two legislative sessions now have gone forth saying that the Vermont Climate Council is in favor of biomass and biofuels and nobody when only there has been recommendation against, but that has been suppressed,” she said. “But now, both last year and this year in the Clean Heat Standard and the Affordable Heat Act it’s been put forth as though the VCC is in favor of all this stuff. So, that’s not right to be happening. I think what’s going on is unethical…. I don’t think it looks very good.”

Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment responded to my request for comment, “The fundamental issue of contention is how biomass emissions are accounted. Vermont does not include CO2 emissions from burning trees as part of GHG emissions accounting. However, data shows that the McNeil plant annually emits CO2 emissions equivalent to most of the passenger cars in Vermont. Since emission reduction is the only mandate contained in the GWSA, some of us are asking for an honest accounting that includes all CO2 emissions and doesn’t play games that exclude those emissions.”

But an honest accounting would mean a lot of the heavy political hitters who stand to profit by the dishonest accounting would be left out in the cold. An honest, public debate over this issue would expose the fact that this whole scheme isn’t so much about carbon reduction and saving the planet as it is about, to use Richard Cowart, author of the Clean Heat Standard’s colorful description, “diverting a river of money” into the pockets of the preferred people. So, discussion gets suppressed.

The Climate Council was supposed to provide political cover for lawmakers who didn’t want to take responsibility for policies the Council recommended. “We’re just doing what we’re told! Don’t blame us!” But at least some Council members didn’t get that memo. They think this whole thing is actually about saving the planet. Bless their hearts.

Rob Roper is a freelance writer who has been involved with Vermont politics and policy for over 20 years. This article reprinted with permission from Behind the Lines: Rob Roper on Vermont Politics,

Categories: Energy, Uncategorized

16 replies »

  1. When man played God and effed the planet all up until it couldn’t achieve homeostasis again…

  2. Burning wood is actually better for the environment than just letting it rot. Rotting wood produces methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. All of the carbon in rotting wood stays in the environment anyhow. This is all about picking winners and losers, with the winners getting rich while taxpayers and electric ratepayers get screwed. The climate change hysteria is the biggest scam in history.

  3. @Mark Maloney – yes indeedy — in a state MADE out of wood — what makes more sense than to ban woodburning heat and important electricity from a foreign country, depending on whether it is working or not… yeah… just don’t question the politicians…and those who are making beaucoup bucks over our cold bodies…

  4. Thanks for the excellent reporting Rob. Everyone should send your piece to their representatives and ask for a response to the issues you raise, before they vote on S.5. Fortunately, Vermont Daily Chronicle provides that contact information at the top of this page, “Toolbox to Follow and Influence the Legislature”. Its time to get out the power tools!

  5. If they really wanted to account for CO2 from Vermont, then they ought to count jet travel in and out of the state, and when there is a total from all sources, subtract from it all the CO2 absorbed by trees and plants in the state. Then you have a CO2 number that is useful.

    • You mean the jet airliners that seem to leave odd looking cloud patterns in the sky? I wonder how clouds make cris-cross patterns in a jet-stream that runs in only one direction. Hmmm

  6. It’s all a farce. Anyone who can’t see that is a useful idiot. The more we learn the more it looks like crony capitalism and fraud. It seems to be controlled by Chittenden county politicians and their connections. They made wood stove builders put catalytic converters on all new stoves but Burlington’s power senate leader Baruth is okay with burning carbon based wood to keep his a$$ warm at UVM. Rob Roper unleashed is a powerful force for truth and honesty.

    • I think you are missing the larger picture here. It’s not about shutting your logger friends down, it’s about the Unaffordable Heat Act and it’s picking and choosing the winners and losers when all Vermonters will be losers in the end when it passes.

  7. The first step towards not expanding the McNeil plant should be to immediately physically sever the electrical connection to every single Chittenden County Senator’s and House Representative’s home…they’ll just have to figure it out for themselves. Second step, I will control burn wood as I see fit…PERIOD! If you try to stop me I will help to sustainably support the raven and coyote populations in my area.

  8. Those under the dome can’t pick and choose which CO2 is good or bad. And unfortunately for them, yet AGAIN (because this happens OVER and OVER with them) it looks like they are giving special favor to those they have close ties with or personally benefit from. This just makes them look corrupt and stupid. (per usual) The Reps can’t sit there and say cow farts are bad, but McNeil emissions are good.

    I have a plan. ALL these *representatives* hell bent on instituting these ridiculous mandates. (As one legislator said “no one HAS to participate” No, you can just freeze to death or eat cold beans from a can while wrapped in that “extra blanket”, yet another legislator said we should get) EACH AND EVERY legislator that thinks this is a great idea should IMMEDIATELY and voluntarily adopt each every provision they want to set forth. And lets go with the high side of the estimated cost of oil and gas. Go ahead and pay that extra 3-4 dollars a gallon for your heating/cooking fuel. Go ahead and buy that EV, WITH NO Kickbacks–since THATS what will happen to many of us) heat pump and all the other wonderful things. I heard you’ll be waiting a while for the heat pump install as one legislator stated he has had the equipment for 18 months but no one to install. MAYBE they could address that and kill 2 birds. Increase trained trades people AND give people good paying jobs…..(Maybe they wouldn’t need to keep hammering the minimum wage raise–one legislators has suggested it be raised to over $19)

    So now, they are going to waste more of our tax dollars for a study to find the “answers” instead of using the old Pelosi rule, “pass it so we can find out whats in it and if it will work.” I listened to enough of the testimony to know, it won’t work.

    Thank God we have VDC and Rob Roper to actually share the truth with us. Keep up the great work!!

  9. With all this talk about the McNeil plant, does the state still use wood chips in their central heat plant in Montpelier?

  10. Funny how the carbon emissions from millions of tourist cars and hundreds of thousands of snowmobiles from Mass and Ct, along with insane amounts of power devoted to snowmaking are all acceptable, but the energy used to heat homes and run cars so that people can get to work are dangerous. Insanity at its finest.

  11. Wood burning plants not only burn wood harvested in Vermont but wood from trees that are directly responsible for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And, the wood comes from older growth trees which are the greatest removers of the carbon dioxide. Cutting older trees and regrowing new ones as replacements delays returning to the same effectiveness of the forest by 20 or more years.

  12. Reducing the surplus population may be a quicker way to realize the 40% CO2 reduction.
    VT has taking the lead in wholesale death and destruction with death tourism, abortions on demand, imported murders( thank you NY, CT and MA) sending those youths north to add to the carnage), keeping the killings high in Burlington…..
    A true model for the rest of the nation.
    A win win for all involved.

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