December 12, 2016 | General

BioEnergy Outlook: Interesting Times

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle December 2016

There is no historical evidence that the expression “may you live in interesting times” is actually a Chinese curse, but, apocryphal or not, it seems appropriate in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election. Regardless of one’s political affiliations, there is no denying that the next few years are going to be interesting. For renewable energy in general that might not always be a good type of interesting, but there is hope that biogas might fare better than most, or at least not suffer any direct assault.
First, however, to clarify: It is the policy of BioCycle and this column to remain bipartisan in its analysis of government policy affecting the biogas industry. If any of the points below appear hopeful that the new Republican government fails to implement some of its objectives, no partisan sentiment is intended. These are neutral, logical conclusions derived from the factual premise that most Republican statements regarding renewable energy have been critical, and many of that party’s policy proposals indicate a desire for reduced government support for renewable energy.
Things are not going to start off well. As this column went to deadline, the President-elect’s transition team was developing a list of executive orders to implement on day one, most intended to undo executive actions of the outgoing President. The primary target will be the Clean Power Plan, but other smaller initiatives could be on the list, such as those encouraging greater use of renewable energy by the federal government. General efforts by agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy to spur renewables development in the scientific or business sectors are likely to be stalled.
Those actions, however, can only repeal executive orders and directives, not laws. Anything which is created by statute, such as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), will be harder for the new administration to unilaterally undo. Of course, since the Congress is also controlled by Republicans it is always possible that the laws themselves could be repealed, but the fate of biogas in the Congress is not sealed yet.


The Investment Tax Credit (ITC) has always had its detractors among the Republican caucus, and so logically it would seem to be on the chopping block. However, if the Republicans push major tax overhaul, as opposed to just “extenders,” everything will be back on the table. Renewable energy tax credits have Republican supporters in windy and sunny states, as well as friends in finance who give generously to members of Congress across the board. Remember that biogas has two hurdles here, since it must be reinstated into the ITC before the ITC is extended.
The Renewable Fuel Standard has extremely vocal opponents, but it also has powerful supporters. More so than any other issue, it embodies the old axiom that “politics makes strange bedfellows.” While it will be attacked, the odds favor its survival. The President-elect is on record supporting the RFS during the primary.
The most fascinating thing about the next Congress is that it will do things. Perhaps not things that are always helpful to biogas, but there will be a return to more traditional legislative wheeling and dealing. In a time of divided government, the trench warfare style of policy discussion means each side has its issues and there is little flexibility. Once legislation actually gets moving, however, the natural process of give and take returns. Despite complete control of the Congress by a party that generally opposes such things, there is hope that policies such as RFS and ITC might find unusual coalitions to ensure their survival.
When the Farm Bill comes up for renewal, it is likely that the important energy provisions which help so many biogas projects should survive. When looking back to predictions about American politics 18 months ago, however, it is hard to have complete confidence in long term forecasts.
A more diffuse, but more long term, harm will come in the form of judicial appointments. The courts have an ongoing and significant role in all policy, since litigation follows regulatory changes (whether increased or decreased). A Republican President and Senate will appoint and confirm many federal judges at all levels, and these conservative jurists could tilt the balance of environmental and energy litigation away from renewable energy for a generation.
Finally, there will be symbolic silliness. Past examples include Ronald Reagan removing the solar panels from the White House roof, and the 2011 Republican House majority removing the compostable plates and cups from the House cafeteria, replacing them with Styrofoam (where did they even find Styrofoam?). Speeches and legislation will declare coal not only good and virtuous, but uniquely and gloriously American.
Overall, biogas is not as vulnerable to the coming changes as other renewables might be, but keeping out of the line of fire will require some effort.
Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

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