My Turn: Get on the right side of climate science

  • A 245-acre whole-tree liquidation cut 2 miles from Jamie Sayen’s home in Stratford. Subsidies to industrial biomass, coupled with New Hampshire’s refusal to regulate such forest management practices, contribute to the climate crisis and undermine efforts to develop a robust, high-value-added local economy. Courtesy of KITTY KERNER

For the Monitor
Published: 9/5/2019 7:00:18 AM

In a couple of weeks, the New Hampshire Legislature will vote on whether to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s veto of House Bill 183 – a bill that forces Eversource ratepayers to subsidize six large biomass plants to the tune of $20 million a year for three years.

HB 183 would force New Hampshire’s poorest citizens to continue to bail out wealthy, absentee owners of biomass plants from unwise investments.

Last year, by a single vote, the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto of SB 365, the precursor to HB 183. However, he signed SB 577 to extend ratepayer subsidies to Berlin’s 75 MW Burgess Biomass plant another three years. Coupled with $150 million in tax breaks and 2009 stimulus funds, public subsidies to Burgess now approach $300 million in the past decade.

Free marketeers oppose government intervention into the market when the subject is regulations or tax increases. They forget their ideological purity when it comes to bailouts for an industry that has failed in the free market. Unless the Legislature sustains the governor’s veto this year, we poor ratepayers and taxpayers will be forced to continue underwriting policies that are a disaster for forests, energy policy and economic revitalization.

The pre-settlement New Hampshire forest was dominated by gargantuan trees. Over half were at least 150 years old, and a quarter had already lived 300 or more years. During Colonial times, our forests supplied the Royal Navy with white pine for the masts of its ships.

Today, the website of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests states: “Over 70% of the standing timber on the Forest Society’s 56,000 acres of forestland is ‘low grade wood.’ ” SPNHF, a strong supporter of HB 183, plans to continue to clear-cut some of its lands, a policy it acknowledges perpetuates the problem of low-grade wood.

After three centuries of unregulated logging, we have degraded New Hampshire’s forests from the King’s Broad Arrow Pines to biomass chips. The media and voters need to ask subsidy supporters why our forests are in such poor condition, despite decades of subsidies and markets for low-value wood.

Here are a few of the most troubling, under-reported issues with industrial biomass:

■Carbon neutral: The biomass industry falsely claims its plants do not increase carbon emissions. When you burn woodchips, considerable carbon stored in soils, along with that sequestered in the trees, is immediately released into the atmosphere. Scientists warn it requires 40 to 118 years to re-sequester that carbon. The global climate crisis requires dramatic reduction of emissions immediately; industrial biomass increases emissions for decades to come.

■Energy policy: a) For optimal carbon sequestration, scientists recommend preserving older and maturing forests. b) Demand reduction is the fastest and least costly path to reducing carbon emissions: conserve energy, eliminate inefficiencies such as leaky buildings, old appliances, and gas guzzlers, and avoid consumer products that are energy intensive.

■Forest management: Responsible landowners and foresters who practice low-impact forestry, but support HB 183, which encourages destructive practices such as clear-cutting and whole-tree chipping, are passively supporting forest degradation and rewarding peers who profiteer from irresponsible logging practices. With subsidies, it pays to chip tomorrow’s quality sawlogs today.

■Markets for high-value wood: Growing quality sawlogs that are processed locally into high value-added niche wood products is best for forests, landowners, loggers and the local economy.

■Subsidies: Since the 1980s, the New Hampshire biomass industry has received hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds via tax breaks and ratepayer subsidies. Non-regulation of destructive logging practices is another form of subsidy. Will it ever end?

■Re-direct subsidies toward economic revitalization: Since its pulp mill was demolished in 2007, the Berlin area has received well in excess of half a billion dollars for the biomass plant and construction of two prisons. Sadly, Berlin’s Main Street is a ghost town with more vacant storefronts than thriving businesses. An economic development policy that costs the public so much, while lining the pockets of wealthy biomass investors and prison construction firms, and leaving our downtowns in poverty and our forests in shambles, is folly.

Imagine if these public funds had been directed to Coos County entrepreneurs who are adding value to forest products, to landowners who sequester optimal amounts of carbon, and to retrain loggers and truckers in value-added wood products, energy auditing and retrofitting jobs.

For citizens and policymakers interested in learning more about industrial biomass, please watch Burned: Are Trees the New Coal?, a documentary that is streaming for free on Link TV’s website at linktv.org.

I urge the New Hampshire Legislature to get on the right side of climate science. For the sake of our grandchildren and our forests, sustain the veto of HB 183.

(Jamie Sayen lives in Stratford. He is author of “You Had a Job for Life,” an oral history of the Groveton Paper Mill.)




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