Ted Niblock

January 12, 2017 | General

BioEnergy Outlook: Lessons Of History

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle January 2017

It is still too early to tell how renewable energy in general, and biogas in particular, will fare after the new Congress and the new President are sworn in. The President-elect has been critical of renewable energy, but his business is happy to promote it when it will help sales, such as luxury condominiums in SoHo marketed to a green-conscious clientele. This suggests that the White House will do whatever it sees in its best interest at any given moment. The Republican majorities in the House and the Senate have no shortage of climate-science-denying critics of renewable energy, but also more than a few members whose states benefit greatly from its job growth.
If there is energy legislation, it will be filled with the specific types of compromises and trade-offs that occur during a Republican Congress and Presidency. Reviewing what happened the last time a Republican House, Senate and President had a lengthy discussion about renewable energy might be useful.
The Energy Policy Act (EPACT) was signed into law by President Bush in 2005, and was the result of negotiation and compromise between advocates of traditional energy, renewable energy, and oddball alliances of seemingly unconnected constituencies that got drawn into the discussion in the most unlikely of ways. The result was the kind of legislation that supporters of biogas must prepare for: Slanted toward traditional energy but containing policies desired by both sides, and unlikely to stop U.S. dependence on fossil fuels but also encouraging renewable energy where it seems most likely to create jobs.
To Republicans this sort of policy combination falls under the rhetorical device “all of the above,” and biogas supporters should expect any assistance for renewable energy to be accompanied by larger favors given to traditional energy. Democrats will be divided over whether to focus on the gains or the losses in such a process. For example, then-Senator Hillary Clinton voted against EPACT in 2005, calling the law a “Dick Cheney lobbyist energy bill” and “a big step backwards on the path to clean, renewable energy.”  Then-Senator Barack Obama voted for the bill in 2005, saying “it was the single largest investment in clean energy — solar, wind, biodiesel — that we had ever seen.”
It is undeniable that EPACT helped the biogas industry tremendously by increasing the amount of biofuel mixed into gasoline under the renewable fuel standard created by the Act. However, it also helped the fossil methane gas industry, by exempting hydraulic fracturing fluids from protections under the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and CERCLA.
It boosted the Production Tax Credit for renewable energy, but also promoted carbon capture and sequestration (sometimes referred to as “clean coal”). It further helped the coal industry by repealing a cap on coal leases, allowing the advanced payment of royalties from coal mines and requiring an assessment of coal resources on federal lands that were not national parks. The Great Lakes were protected from oil and gas drilling, but increases were allowed or encouraged on the Outer Continental Shelf and in the Gulf of Mexico.
EPACT is also an example of how energy efficiency and technological improvements to the nation’s energy infrastructure often get wide bipartisan support. It commissioned studies on demand response and time-based pricing, required utilities to offer net metering, created tax breaks for home energy efficiency and created federal reliability standards regulating the electrical grid.

Climate Change Conversation

Despite the criticism of climate science in the Republican ranks, it is possible to work on the issue with many conservatives, but only certain discussions will gain traction. Military leaders, who must deal in long term threats based on real science, are generally helpful, as are certain industry leaders, but in all cases expect an emphasis on nuclear power. EPACT included the nuclear industry’s wish list at the time, including cost-overrun and delay support for six new plants (worth billions of dollars), and studies on how to dispose of high-level nuclear waste.
Both sides lost the chance to push pet projects. The bill did not limit liability for producers of the sometimes dangerous gasoline additive MTBE, nor did it allow drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But it also did not increase vehicle efficiency standards or enshrine elements of the Kyoto Protocol into U.S. law.
Every bill has a moment that seems odd or eccentric, which I call the “full moon.” EPACT amended the Uniform Time Act of 1966 by changing the start and end dates of daylight saving time, beginning in 2007. Clocks are now set ahead in March instead of April, and back in November rather than October. This change, which saves a significant amount of energy by changing the amount of time we all spend working and commuting in the dark, was fiercely debated by a random group of special interests including support from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the National Association of Convenience Stores, and the National Retinitis Pigmentosa Foundation Fighting Blindness, and virulent opposition from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (certain prayers cannot be recited before sunrise), the National Parent-Teacher Association, and the Calendaring and Scheduling Consortium (who knew!).
There are differences between 2005 and 2017, such as a much bigger renewable energy industry today, but also more virulent opposition to green issues. But it helps to refresh our recollection as to what the wheeling and dealing might look like.
Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

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