Capital Beat: Onlookers cheered, disheartened by upheld vetoes

Monitor staff
Published: 9/21/2019 9:18:25 PM

Dozens of bills came and went, but by the end of the week, almost nothing had changed. In attempt after attempt, the Democratic-led Legislature failed to override all but one of Gov. Chris Sununu’s vetoed bills this week, with left-leaning lawmakers condemned to watching their creations fall.

But for some who don’t hold elected office, the veto outcomes had more immediate effects. Advocates across the spectrum showed up at the State House this week, hanging on every step. Here are some of them.

Biomass goes bust

For Tom Thomson, owner of the Thomson family tree farm son of former Gov. Meldrim Thomson, the failure of one bill is already being felt. House Bill 183 would have delivered subsidies to New Hampshire’s six biomass plants, which have been struggling in recent years.

If that sounds like deja vu it is: A very similar bill passed last year to do the same thing, requiring utilities companies to purchase biomass power at competitive rates. But a legal challenge brought to a Washington, D.C. agency by the New England Ratepayers Association – a Massachusetts-based advocacy group – has put those subsidies in jeopardy.

So members of the timber and biomass industry pinned their hopes to another iteration of support. House Bill 183 was set up to eke through the Senate, with 14 Democrats and two biomass-supporting Republicans – Sens. Jeb Bradley and Bob Giuda – ready to push it along.

And by a margin of four votes, the House declined to give the Senate the chance.

Now, Thomson and others say Wednesday’s veto result could be the final blow for major parts of the industry. Facing difficulty competing with lowered prices from natural gas and out-of-state energy alternatives four out of six of the biomass plants are already in effective shutdown status, according to industry representatives.

Beyond the biomass plants themselves, the low grade wood that fueled them, and the industry that harvests that wood, will all be affected, according to Thomson.

“People are going to lose their jobs, equipment dealers … chipper manufacturers, probably the phone is ringing right now: ‘Cancel that order’,” Thomson said.

Thomson, who has been in the forest management business for 63 years, says clearing out the low grade wood is essential to maintaining the health of his forests. The alternative, he said, is development.

“I can’t practice sustainable forestry now,” he said. “There’s no low grade market. And instead of growing trees, I’m going to start growing house lots.”

Shaun Legueux, president of New England Forestry Consultants, said the closure of biomass plants means no outlet for that wood product.

“This is a huge blow, because it makes it much more difficult for us to do the quality work that we’ve been able to do in these markets,” he said.

Legueux said that net effect, for foresters, will be “constrictions.”

“It’s tougher for me to work on low grade jobs,” he said. “You can always sell a good product. (But) by selling that lower quality product, it actually has the biggest impact on the forest.”

Not all are shedding a tear, though. In recent years environmental activists have raised objections to biomass as a power source, pointing to the burning of wood as a pollutant.

In a letter to lawmakers last week, the state Sierra Club and a coalition of other environmental groups railed against biomass as unhealthy for humans, animals and the environment.

“For approximately 30 years, these plants have been operating as major stationary sources of pollution, including acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide, smog-causing nitrogen dioxide, mercury, volatile organic compounds, soot, heavy metals, CO2, and dioxin and other cancer-causing emissions,” the letter, first reported by the New Hampshire Journal, stated.

The group argued that solar net metering, offshore wind, and battery storage was better for promoting clean energy, and said that the biomass plants had not prioritized the necessary work to make their plants less polluting.

And they said any subsidies now would not keep the plants in business forever.

“Since HB 183 does not require improvements to their business strategy or require technology investments or other changes, it is likely that in three years these companies will be back at the Legislature asking for more hand-outs.”

Still, the veto Wednesday cut short a lifeline that plants argued could have kept them a viable member of the state’s energy infrastructure and economy, particularly at times of energy scarcity in winter.

And on Thursday, the final hammer dropped. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) released a ruling finding that the New Hampshire law which overcame a veto last year is in violation of existing federal authority.

Prospects for the future of the industry are dimmer than ever.

Green energy and marijuana

For other activists in the State House this week, the outcome was a mixed bag.

Dan Weeks, a top official at the solar company ReVision Energy, and a former Executive Council candidate, had been leaning on House Bill 365, which would have expanded net metering to allow larger companies and towns to sell solar energy into the grid at higher levels. That would have helped his company, which helps supply the panels.

On Wednesday, Weeks showed up with a half dozen coworkers, toting white hard hat helmets and signs. The bill did not overcome a veto – it was six votes short. One bill the governor did sign this year, though: Senate Bill 165, which eases the process for low income communities to net meter off solar projects. So the upshot was mixed at best.

Aureus Humboldt, of Manchester, came with his father Rik for one specific bill: medical marijuana home grow. Both Aureus and Rik have conditions aided by medical marijuana, but both have struggled to navigate the medical bureaucracy necessary to obtain it in New Hampshire, they said. House Bill 364 would have allowed those licensed to receive therapeutic cannabis to grow up to three plants in their homes.

They didn’t get it – the bill was ultimately quashed in the Senate. They did get one small victory: Senate Bill 88, which eased the ability to obtain medical marijuana ID cards by scrapping the requirement for a doctor patient relationship, and the one veto to be overturned.  But for Aureus, who has tried unsuccessfully for three years, it was cold comfort.“It costs me $1,500 a month to treat my condition,” he said. “I believe the right to  grow my own medicine is a human rights issue, not a legal issue.”

As for the lawmakers: Republicans were elated. The steady stream of upheld vetoes was their clearest exercise of control in over a year. Democrats, meanwhile, put on a defiant face, flooding to the Office of Legislative Services to file new legislation that in many cases replicated the same bills Sununu has quashed this year.

And that means these fights are not leaving anytime soon.

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