Fighting for biomass and working together


We wrote back in July about a tax exemption for woody biomass that is being threatened in Washington state. Despite an immense need for renewable energy, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) recommended that the 2009 tax exemption be allowed to expire in 2013.

Just recently a citizen committee called the Citizen Commission for the Performance Measurement of Tax Preferences took up the issue and will hold a hearing Sept. 23 and then make a recommendation to the Legislature. The commission took testimony last week, and timber and paper companies came by to make their case, according to the Olympian.

Lobbyists from Longview Fibre, the Washington Forest Protection Association and the Northwest Pulp and Paper Association showed up to point out that legislative intent can be hard to define and that lawmakers were not actually intending to end the tax break.

“If it was intended to expire and go away completely, that is news to me,” testified John Ehrenreich, a tax-policy expert for the timber-backed forest protection group. Ehrenreich said he actually wrote the original bill before it was merged with other tax breaks into a larger renewable energy bill in 2009.

Ehrenreich acknowledged that the hog-fuel portion carried an expiration date. But he said that was because the industry was “fully intending to come back in a few years and go through a review process like we’re talking about here” with hopes of retaining it.

The Capital Press this week interviewed William Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who now lives in Seattle. He is also the chairman of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, a collaborative problem-solving institution of the University of Washington and Washington State University.

With the mere existence of the EPA being currently threatened by House Republicans, Ruckelshaus is an important figure to weigh in on the debate over federal environmental regulation. His center at UW just helped “Washington state’s agricultural industry, environmental interests and counties hammer out a framework for cooperation on critical habitat areas that was enacted by the 2011 Legislature,” according to the Capital Press, and he believes collaboration is key.

Here is an excerpt from the full interview:

A: …If I’m a landowner and someone is running a highway through my land, I may not like it, but at least I’m being compensated for it. If I’m forced to put buffers alongside streams that run through my land in order to protect salmon, sometimes those buffers take a significant amount of my land, and I think they should be compensated for that.

If that’s a public good and it’s being asserted against a private property owner, then why shouldn’t the public pay for it the same way they do with a highway? But we don’t.

Q: That was the plan of the Forests and Fish Law here in Washington. (Enacted in 1999, the arrangement includes compensation for trees not harvested within stream buffers.) But then the state doesn’t have money to pay for it.

A: That’s the problem. We just faced the same kind of agreement, that ended up with a statute, between the farmers, environmentalists, the tribes — (which) were involved all the way to the end — and the counties. And that law, where there’s significant harm, suggests payment. I’ve been sitting in on a committee for the last several months, about how are we going to raise the money to do that?

The federal government is very interested in it, because they can’t figure out how to solve this issue.

In the first place, some guy writing the regulation down in Olympia or in Salem, and not being on the actual land itself, can’t possibly draft a regulation that makes sense on every piece of land. So the landowner has the regulator from the government coming on their land, starting to tell him how to manage it. He’s been managing for five generations and this guy’s maybe six months out of school. Well, they’re not going to be very pleased with what they’re told to do.

This effort we’ve just finished here is an effort to get everybody at the table, defining the problem and letting the individual landowner have a lot more authority about what he should do to manage the land in such a way that it doesn’t adversely impact the environment. And compensating them where there are significant costs involved.