September 15, 2016 | General

BioEnergy Outlook: Biogas Policy Platform

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle September 2016

The long-term growth of the biogas industry, and America’s transition to a greener and more sustainable economy in general, may be accelerated or slowed in the coming years depending on the policies implemented by the winners of this fall’s Presidential and Congressional elections. Below are a few key elements of a pro biogas policy platform.
One of the very best characteristics of biogas is that it has broad bipartisan appeal in American politics, largely because its benefits to society tend to be local and regional. Waste management, small-scale distributed generation of renewable electricity and heat, sustainable agriculture, and moving small to mid-size vehicle fleets to clean transportation fuel are all largely the concern of state and local officials, who can ill afford to strangle their governments with bitter partisan feuding. The trash must be picked up, food must be grown, and energy must be produced and delivered.
A very important policy position at the federal level, therefore, is simply to create a judicial atmosphere in which these state and local governments can be progressive without getting bombarded by lawsuits. A pro biogas policy agenda in Washington should push for the appointment and approval of federal judges who will allow states to pursue their forward-looking, meaningful restrictions on waste and pollution as well as incentives for clean and renewable energy. It is well known that the next President will appoint a key vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, but the federal judiciary is badly understaffed at all levels. All these seats could easily be filled with respected jurists who are inclined to let the states move forward.
It is possible to find both conservative and liberal judges who see protection of the environment as a crucial role for government, and agree that states should be free to find their own path in all matters. One of the most familiar phrases from Supreme Court jurisprudence, cited dozens of times by justices across the political spectrum, is: “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” When it comes to biogas policy, there are many courageous states that unfortunately often get sued for their efforts.
A more biogas-friendly federal bench would also allow federal agencies, most notably the Environmental Protection Agency, to proceed with pollution control regulations that will make biogas more attractive. The EPA has been delayed by lawsuits interfering with everything from the Clean Power Plan to the Renewable Fuel Standard to the Total Maximum Daily Load (a water quality regulation affecting demand for biogas projects).
A biogas-friendly administration will, in addition to making harassing lawsuits less likely, also direct its agencies to push forward with all important programs. This includes those already mentioned as well as those related to food waste diversion, fertilizer classifications, water quality regulations, and concentrated animal feeding operations.

Advancing Pro Biogas Legislation

As for a legislative agenda, the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is the horse biogas was just knocked off and needs to get back on. For the first time in its history, when the ITC was renewed this year, several sources of renewable energy, including biogas, were dropped. This omission was so puzzling that at times it was referred to as an “error,” but unfortunately the must-pass omnibus legislation to which it was appended comes around only a few times a year.
Biogas advocates, including the American Biogas Council, are looking for any opportunity to attach it to something else, and sometimes the post-election or “lame duck” session of Congress provides opportunities otherwise unavailable. Even when it is in effect, the ITC requires a biogas project to generate electricity to qualify, when often its biogas would be better used to replace fossil methane gas in some other capacity. The ABC and others are therefore also often working on stand-alone legislation (currently the “Agriculture Environmental Stewardship Act”) to apply the tax credit to projects that do not produce electricity.
Biogas is not a controversial subject on Capitol Hill, and as noted, it often attracts bipartisan support, lending itself to creative and effective coalitions. It is, however, a small industry and for the past several years has been tossed like a cork in the violent ocean storm that is the present day U.S. Congress. The House of Representatives has been an especially difficult environment, populated by climate science deniers (including the chair of the science committee) as well as many who simply don’t want the government to do anything.
With any luck, legislative action after the election might move more smoothly, and biogas might have a better chance in the next Congress. Of course, a truly pro biogas government would return to the bigger nationwide policies that are eventually needed for real economy-wide transition, such as a federal renewable energy portfolio or a carbon tax. These solutions have not, however, been seriously discussed for several years.
Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

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