The Bulletin Board

House passes Burgess BioPower and renewable natural gas bills, balks at youth climate panel

By: - May 6, 2022 12:12 pm
A ring of gas flames on a stove

A bill setting standards for so-called renewable natural gas was approved, 214-118. (Photo Illustration by Christopher Furlong | Getty Images)

Under a midnight deadline to act on all bills Thursday, the House advanced legislation supporting biomass power and renewable natural gas projects, while halting a youth environmental commission – an effort that would have given young people a seat at the table for the energy decisions impacting their future. 

The Burgess BioPower plant in Berlin, which burns low-grade wood to create electricity, would get another cap-free year of ratepayer subsidies under the House’s version of Senate Bill 271, which passed the House on a voice vote Thursday.

The plant would still be allowed to charge more than the going price of energy, without the ratepayer protection in the original contract, capping those charges at $100 million. Once the company surpasses that, additional revenue is supposed to be credited back to ratepayers. Now, the company is around $50 million over the cap, and it says crediting that money back to ratepayers would put it out of business and remove a significant economic pillar of the North Country. SB 271 would lift the cap for one more year.

Democrats argued in favor of giving the plant a longer, two-year reprieve, but an amendment to do so was defeated, 143-190. “It’s time to stop the bleeding,” said Rep. Michael Harrington, a Strafford Republican. “The ratepayers have paid too much. They’re never going to get the $50 million back one way or the other, but let’s not add more to the bill.”

An environmental youth council that would have had no cost to taxpayers did not fare as well. The House killed Senate Bill 263, which would have created the youth environmental education and conservation council, 174-150, with Republicans arguing that government intervention was unnecessary. “Kids want to get together, talk about the environment and so on, they can,” said Rep. Fred Plett, a Goffstown Republican. “We don’t need another committee.”

Seventeen-year old climate organizer Loreley Godfrey, who had testified for the bill, said the decision was a disappointment and that creating a youth council without legislative support would place an undue burden on students and young people. 

“It would lack the legitimacy, resources, and networking provided by a statutory committee,” she said in an email.

An emerging energy source got the green light from the House: A bill setting standards for so-called renewable natural gas was approved, 214-118. Senate Bill 424 would establish guidelines and allow utilities to charge ratepayers for the new technology. The legislation has made its way through both bodies with support from lawmakers and utilities, but has drawn concern from environmental groups in the state. 

For instance, renewable natural gas, which uses methane created in landfills, can be purified and used like natural gas for home heating or electricity. However, environmental groups say methane leakage during the process would allow gas companies to continue justifying fossil fuel infrastructure, instead of switching to cleaner sources.

Some Democrats had last-minute concerns, and one of the bill’s co-sponsors tried to table the bill to avoid its passage but the motion failed, 139-190. Among them were Rep. Lucius Parshall of Marlborough, who called renewable natural gas “feel-good greenwashing,” and Rep. Peter Somssich of Portsmouth, who said he was worried safeguards in the bill were insufficient to protect ratepayers from expensive investments in the emerging technology. Renewable natural gas can cost three times as much as traditional natural gas. 

Senate bills modified by the House will go back to their originating body, to give lawmakers in that chamber a chance to accept, reject, or negotiate the changes.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.