OPINION: Mirrors and Smoke, Smoke and Mirrors

By John Crouch | September 14, 2018

Recently, there has been some talk in the biomass community, including in the pages of Biomass Magazine, that suggests there is a possibility of a $500 million woodstove change-out fund being created by Congress. While the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association agrees that there needs to be a program to help fund the removal of old, uncertified woodstoves, the current draft concept and efforts to promote it at this time are an illusion, or worse, a shell game.

HPBA is the trade association for all wood, pellet, and gas-fired heating products and their accessories, i.e. hearth products. We’ve worked to establish change-out programs to remove and replace old woodstoves since 1989, usually in partnership with local or state governments or tribes. Often, these programs are established with the support and participation of local chapters of the American Lung Association. We hope and expect that there will one day be a nationally funded woodstove change-out program, similar to the Diesel Emission Reduction Act, which was first enacted in 2005. It is an idea that HPBA has been working on with the U.S. Congress since 2007. Both industry and state air regulators want such a fund and are pushing to make it a reality.

Right now, however, the concept is being dangled to try to divert attention from another important conversation, and that’s just not right.

For almost two years, HPBA has been working on behalf of our entire industry to fix a major time-sensitive problem with the 2015 revision of the EPA’s woodburning certification program, the New Source Performance Standards for New Residential Wood Heaters (i.e., wood and pellet stoves and inserts) and New Residential Hydronic Heaters and Forced-Air Furnaces.

The final rule established two deadlines: Step 1, effective in 2015, and Step 2, effective on May 15, 2020. The Step 2 standards contain fundamental problems. They set very difficult standards for new woodstoves and hydronic heaters, set a nearly impossible standard for new wood furnaces, and they tied the hands of the industry by requiring that on or after May 15, 2020 nothing could be made, sold, or transferred unless it met the new Step 2 standards. The new Step 2 emission standards are complicated, difficult to meet, and require months, or even years, of careful lab work. Most woodstove and hydronic heater manufacturers will be lucky to have even a few models ready by the deadline. And at this rate, consumers of wood furnaces will be lucky if they have more than a single model to choose from starting in May 2020.

Since retailers cannot be certain what and how much they’ll sell in the winter of 2019-‘20 (which also depends a lot on the weather!), they have radically cut back on orders of current models that meet Step 1. This, in turn, means reduced sales revenue for the manufacturers paired with the requirement to speed up further their expensive R&D efforts now. Even manufacturers that already had models that met the new Step 2 emissions target aren’t exempt from the crunch. Since the EPA slightly changed the test, all models certified before 2015, including those that were clean and efficient enough to meet the Step 2 standards by most any metric, must be retested with the new method.

HPBA has moved a bill (H.R. 453) through the House and is poised with bipartisan support to move the Senate version (S. 1857) through the key Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW). The legislation would extend the Step 2 date of the NSPS by three years, from May 15, 2020 to May 15, 2023. This is the cleanest possible legislative edit to the regulation. Now, suddenly at this late hour, comes draft changeout program language by way of a proposed amendment that has been thrown together to sidetrack the conversation about the need for additional time to meet Step 2 of the NSPS.

Rumors are that the authors of the draft change-out program language plan to offer it as an amendment to S. 1857, as a replacement of the original intent of the legislation: to provide extra time for industry to come into compliance with Step 2 targets. What hasn’t been mentioned is that the proposed change-out program language would only authorize creation of such a program. It wouldn’t actually appropriate those funds, which would require another step. Since this legislative session ends in January, any legislation that isn’t signed into law over the past two years of this session of Congress will have to be reintroduced. To create such a new program will take years of work with Congress, not a few months at the end of a congressional session that is now consumed with an upcoming election. Simply put, the creation of an unfunded program would be an empty gesture that provides no benefit to the industry or consumers.

Our industry overwhelmingly supports the idea of a change-out program authorization, but any sincere effort to implement such a program needs to have a meaningful chance of passage and include industry input during the drafting process—not a hastily-drafted, diversionary amendment that lessens the chances of industry getting the relief it needs to ensure a viable generation of new, cleaner-burning woodstoves.