Bay Journal

Black liquor is back

Bill to remove burning of paper-making waste from renewable-fuels list returns

  • By Rona Kobell on February 14, 2014
  • Comments are closed for this article.

The Black liquor bill is back.


Well, the sponsors of the legislation in the Maryland General Assembly are not calling it the Black Liquor Bill. Instead, they’re calling it the Renewable Portfolio Standard Qualifying Biomass bill.


Confused? Let the legislative language explain it for you. This bill, according to its text, would “Limit the eligibility of qualifying biomass as a Tier 1 renewable source for the purposes of the renewable energy portfolio standard to qualifying biomass used at a generation unit that started commercial operation on or after January 1, 2005, and that achieves a total system efficiency of 65% or more; defining terms; altering terms; etc.”


There is a Senate and House version of the legislation.


All clear? Yeah, me neither. But, I suppose if legislators wrote their bills in plain English, there wouldn’t be much need for reporters.


The problem is this: Maryland’s renewable energy standard includes fuels that are not really renewable in the classic definition, and these fuels are sucking the opportunity away from true renewables, like solar and wind, and making it harder for those fuels to take off.


In Maryland and many other states, utilities are required to purchase a certain amount of their electricity from renewable sources. We tend to think of this requirement as a good thing, and we tend to think of renewable sources as solar, wind, and geothermal energy. But Maryland also allows other fuels in its renewable standard, including the burning of a waste product used in making paper that is known as black liquor.


Black liquor is a carbon-rich tarry liquid that paper companies have been burning since the 1930s — way before renewable fuel was in vogue. But in 2004, paper companies got black liquor into the portfolio of renewable fuels. So they now get a subsidy and an incentive to do something they were already doing.


According to environmentalists, 50 percent of Maryland’s renewable energy credits have gone to purchasing fuel from the burning of this black liquor substance — money that could be going to buttress wind farms and solar facilities in the state.


Paper companies haven’t wanted to lose this subsidy, especially since Maryland will require utilities to buy 20 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2022. So, they’re using all the classic arguments — we’ll have to cut jobs and wages, we may have to relocate overseas, we may go out of business — in order to keep the black liquor in the mix.


But the thing is, only one of those paper companies is in Maryland. The New Page Mill still operates in Western Maryland. Last year, environmentalists struck a deal with the managers at Luke that they would be grandfathered in, and the black liquor ban would only apply to out-of-state companies. But just days before the hearing, the plant managers announced they no longer supported the deal, and the bill ended up losing by just one vote.


At the time, officials with the U.S. Steelworkers Union told the Washington Post that black liquor should remain among the suite of options for renewables, so that utilities have alternatives.


Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network disagrees. He fought the paper industry last year and is gearing up to do it again.


Black liquor is not at the top of the list of environmental priorities for many organizations in Maryland. The top priority this year has been fighting the legislators who wish to undo last year’s stormwater law. That law required Baltimore City and the nine largest counties to create stormwater utilities, which would require fees from homeowners.


Another high priority has been to stop fracking, the controversial drilling practice that may be coming to Western Maryland in the next few years. With the fracking issue come many other concerns, including how to store its wastewater, how to make sure natural-gas pipelines are safe and how to protect drinking water.


A third priority is a pesticide reporting bill that would require farmers to enter the chemicals they are spraying into a database. And environmentalists would also like to stop the practice of burning trash for use as renewable energy.


Even though it’s not at the top, the black liquor issue at least is making most environmental groups’ lists of priorities. The League of Conservation Voters, Clean Water Action and Chesapeake Climate Action Network are all pushing it.


Snow forecast willing, the House version of the black liquor bill has a hearing scheduled for Feb. 20 at 1 p.m. The Senate’s hearing on the bill is scheduled for March 4 at 1.

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About Rona Kobell

Rona Kobell is a former writer for the Baltimore Sun. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Rona Kobell

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