Gasification Debate in the Sunshine State

California continues to see attempts to stymie gasification projects.
By Anna Austin | June 22, 2011

The Bioenergy Producers Association has been trying for the past six years to pass legislation to make California friendlier toward bioenergy projects, particularly biomass gasification projects. California law, however, contains a scientifically inaccurate definition of gasification, requiring the process to result in zero emissions, the BPA says.

Attempts to correct the definition have been repeatedly blocked by a minority of democratic legislators on the state’s environmental committees. As a result, many companies have located their bioenergy projects in other states.

 At the end of 2010, there was some traction in rectifying the situation, as the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) issued a finding that Canada-based Plasco Energy Group, which is planning to build a waste-to-energy facility, could meet the intent of the existing gasification definition.

Once again, however, there are attempts to block the action, this time from the office of the Senate's President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

On behalf of Steinberg, Chief Policy Advisor Kip Lipper sent a letter to the state agency and the California governor’s office, demanding a rescission of the Plasco Energy ruling.

In response, David Roberti, who served 13 years as president pro tem of the state senate and is currently president of the BPA, wrote a letter to Steinberg describing the action as a “frontal attack” on the bioenergy industry. “It is clear that CalRecycle’s ruling on this issue, reached after long discussion, was the correct opinion,” Roberti states. “Legally, there could be no other interpretation, because it would never be the intent of the legislature to pass a law with which no one can comply.”

Roberti points out that no refinery of any type or size produces zero emissions, and that the standard is not required of any other manufacturing facility. “[The standard] has discouraged, indeed has prevented, this industry from attempting to operate in the state.”

The Lipper letter is a damaging signal to the multibillion dollar biobased technology industry and indicates the state is not interested in what it can contribute to California’s economy, Roberti says. Nor does it want the industry’s help in meeting California’s energy goals, including the renewable portfolio standard of 33 percent. Plasco Energy intends to comply with all applicable state and local laws and legitimate environmental standards in its Salinas project, he adds.

Roberti says using post-recycled waste streams as feedstock for renewable energy production is universally recognized everywhere but in California and that the short-sighted view of a minority of Democratic party members is becoming the subject of ridicule. “In a free market economy, the waste-to-clean energy industry has just as much right to be permitted and operate under California’s stringent environmental laws as any other,” he writes. “National security, the economy, energy independence and an improved environment demand this.”

In early May, Roberti received a response from Steinberg, emphasizing that current law does not erect any unique or specific barriers to the construction or operation of gasification facilities. “There are no restrictions in law especially applicable to bioenergy or gasification facilities that do not apply to other fuels and energy facilities,” he writes. “Rather, the supporters of these technologies wish to be accorded elevated statutory treatment currently reserved for activities such as recycling and renewable energy, which the legislature and past governors have held are unique environmental goods.”

Jim Stewart, chairman of the BPA, says Steinberg’s comments are refuted by the fact that the waste gasification-to-biofuels/electricity industry has virtually abandoned California, and by the scientifically inaccurate definition of gasification in statute that has caused biobased technology providers and their investors not to risk capital investment in the state. “Their letter and demand for rescission of the Plasco Energy ruling has indeed been taken by the industry as a signal that the state's legislature is not interested in the development of advanced biofuels projects in California, nor is it sensitive to the related issues of national security, energy independence, low-cost biofuels, reduced dependence on landfills and the benefits to the environment resulting from the positive use of solid waste as a feedstock for the recycling of carbon through renewable energy production.”