Hochul poised to drop support for ReEnergy as climate provisions scrapped in budget negotiations

Apr. 8—ALBANY — As Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul appears to abandon her push to rewrite the state's climate laws, she also appears to have dropped a provision in those planned rewrites that could have helped save the ReEnergy biomass facility on Fort Drum.

Part of the language of the bill Gov. Hochul was hoping to include in the state budget would have amended Public Service Law to define the ReEnergy biomass power plant on Fort Drum, ReEnergy Black River, as a sustainable renewable energy system.

In the second-to-last paragraph of the bill, any "anaerobic digestion, forest biopower that is operational as of Dec. 31, 2022," would be considered a renewable energy system. The bill would also have made it so carbon emissions from biopower plants isn't counted toward the state's climate goals.

"This was being discussed at the budget table, and then all that blew up over the last three days," said John K. Bartow Jr., executive director of the Empire State Forest Products Association.

On Wednesday, Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil B. Seggos and Doreen Harris, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority told reporters that the governor would stop advocating for that bill, which changes a number of areas in the state's environmental laws, as she negotiates the state budget with legislative Democrats.

The governor's changes have faced sharp criticism from environmentalists and progressives, who decried it as an attempt to gut the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, passed in 2019. The core of the bill Gov. Hochul was supporting would have changed the way New York calculates greenhouse gas emissions under the Climate Act. The impact of carbon emissions is now calculated over a 20-year period, but under the governor's proposed changes that would be extended to 100 years. That's closer to national guidelines, but environmentalists argue it's a less accurate measurement period and could lead to allowing more emissions.

Mr. Bartow said that with the legislation pulled off the budget negotiating table, he doesn't anticipate the ReEnergy provisions would be included anywhere else.

However, Laura Haight, U.S. policy director for the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which has advocated against the ReEnergy plant's operations, said she's not entirely convinced the language is out of the budget talks.

"It's not a done deal that there won't be something done for ReEnergy somewhere else in the budget," she said.

There has been a lot of political pressure on leaders to pass measures to keep the ReEnergy plant open. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has advocated for its opening. She has argued the Army needs the facility to remain 100% self-powered, without relying on the grid power. Fort Drum connected to the National Grid system on March 31. Army officials have not significantly advocated for the ReEnergy plant to stay open.

Mr. Bartow said even if that bill is still on the negotiating table, he isn't sure it would save the plant, which employs 28 people and was the sole power provider for Fort Drum for more than a decade.

"That would just define them as a renewable energy source," he said. "Then, the Public Service Commission would probably have to go out and amend its program rules. Every day we go by now is a day the screw goes further into the coffin."

The PSC has received a petition from ReEnergy to establish a program to compensate the facility as an environmentally positive entity, after a contract with NYSERDA expired, but has taken no action on it. Since it opened, the facility has been selling renewable energy credits, which have been key in its profitability.

Under the Climate Act, biomass is not considered a renewable or environmentally friendly energy source, so ReEnergy cannot continue to sell renewable energy credits once its contract with the energy development authority expires in May.

ReEnergy's Fort Drum plant operated under contract with the Department of Defense that expired at the end of March. Since then, the plant has been shutting down, with employee layoffs planned and equipment being disconnected for long-term storage.

There's some controversy over whether bioenergy, produced by wood-fueled facilities like the ReEnergy plant, are an environmentally friendly source of electricity.

Ms. Haight said wood-burning and biomass energy plants heavily pollute surrounding areas. The Partnership for Policy Integrity has advocated against wood-burning and biofuel facilities across the country, and against measures taken to keep ReEnergy's facility open.

"They emit far more carbon dioxide emissions than even coal plants, which is significant," she said. "They're also relying on wood as fuel, and we need the forests, as part of our best defense against climate change."

ReEnergy sourced its fuels from various streams, including local logging operations which would sell the scraps and brush from their job sites to the company and dedicated growing operations with thousands of acres of trees used in the process.

ReEnergy argued that aspect of its operation was carbon-neutral because new trees were being grown to offset the carbon emissions from their burning, but Ms. Haight said that's an inaccurate calculation. "It's just been proven over and over again by the science community to be false," she said.

ReEnergy Black River was also found by the Department of Environmental Conservation to regularly burn tons of tires, creosote-treated lumber and products with wood glue on them, which when burned cause significant pollution.

Ms. Haight said she's highly critical of the way the ReEnergy plant shutdown has been handled. Since 2019, it's been apparent that the Black River facility could not continue to operate after its contracts expired this year. She said that instead of the company or state leadership recognizing that reality, there's been a tooth-and-nail fight to save it with regulatory tweaks.

"There are going to be families that are impacted, businesses that are impacted by this plant closing," she said. "I think that the state fell short in not providing some support for that."

"Instead of facing the reality that this plant was going to have to close because it simply would not fit under the climate law, they've spent the past three or four years trying to change the climate law, and that isn't fair to the families that are impacted by this," she added.

The status of the biomass clause in the state budget remains vague. When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Gov. Hochul declined to address the clause regarding biomass-fueled power plants.

The budget was due April 1, but has been delayed over disagreements between the legislature and the governor. A stopgap bill was passed to fund the state government through Monday, as legislative leaders continue to negotiate in Albany.