New Hampshire House fails to override veto of biomass bill

By Erin Voegele | September 18, 2019

The New Hampshire House of Representatives on Sept. 18 failed by a narrow margin to override Gov. Chris Sununu’s recent veto of HB 183, a bill that aimed to support operations at the state’s six biomass power plants.

The vote narrowly missed reaching the required two-thirds majority needed to override Sununu’s veto of the bill. According to the New Hampshire General Court, 251 state lawmakers voted in favor of the veto override, with 133 voting against it. An additional 14 lawmakers did not cast a vote.

HB 183 was passed with strong bipartisan support by the New Hampshire House in March and the state’s Senate in May. The bill aimed to support operations at the state’s biomass power plants and avoid a protracted legal fight over SB 365, a biomass reform law that was enacted in 2018.  

SB 365 aims to require electric distribution companies to purchase energy from the state’s biomass and waste-to-energy facilities via mandated, three-year contracts. That bill was also vetoed by Sununu on June 19, 2018.

Following a push from the state’s biomass industry, the legislature successfully voted to override Sununu’s veto of SB 365 in September 2018. Implementation of the law, however, has been delayed by litigation the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and by challenges at the Public Utilities Commission.

In an effort to avoid a protracted legal fight over S.B. 365 and a crippling shutdown of the state’s biomass energy plants, a bipartisan coalition of state senators offered an amendment to HB 183 that creates a baseload renewable energy credit to benefit biomass energy producers, allowing biomass plants to get back on-line, providing 100 MW of energy to the state’s grid, assisting the forestry industry with a low-grade market for wood chips, and putting people back to work.

Sununu vetoed HB 183 on Aug. 5. In his veto message, Sununu said HB 183 “creates another immense subsidy for New Hampshire’s independent biomass plants, the third such bill sent to me in as many years.” He also claimed the bill would cost state ratepayers approximately $20 million a year over the next three years, on top of the existing subsidies those plants already receive. “This bill picks winners and losers in a competitive energy market,” Sununu continued. “Furthermore, it harms our most vulnerable citizens for the benefit of a select few. I remain committed to advancing renewable energy generation and fuel diversity, but we must do so without unjustly burdening the ratepayers of New Hampshire.”

Following Sununu’s veto of HB 183, the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association issued a statement expressing disappointment. “The FERC litigation, governor’s veto, and resulting plant shutdowns have hurt the state’s timberland owners who are trying to conduct sustainable forestry,” said the NHTOA in a statement. “The veto also inflicts real damage on New Hampshire’s $1.4 billion timber industry, the state’s third-largest industry and a direct and indirect provider of thousands of jobs, most of them in rural areas where timber is a major contributor to local economies.”

Jasen Stock, executive director of the NHTOA said his organization is incredibly disappointed that Sununu’s veto of HB 183 was sustained during the Sept. 18 vote, noting the House was short only four votes to reach the required two-thirds majority for a veto override.

Stock said the House’s failure to override the veto perpetuates a shroud of uncertainty around these power plants and the state’s timber industry. “It’s not good for land owners looking to do forest management and certainly not good for loggers and foresters trying to manage property,” he said.

He offered an example of a forester he spoke with today. “He has a client that has a wood lot in Hillsborough County in the southern part of the state,” Stock said. “The wood lot has a lot of low-grade timber that cannot be used to make saw-logs or lumber. He can’t get loggers to bid on it. He can’t get loggers to touch it. No one wants to go in and do the weeding and thinning his lot needs because they literally have no place to take the wood…You have a wood lot out there—and there are thousands of others just like it—that are in need of some management. Without a market for that low-grade timber these foresters and loggers are hamstrung with what they can do to try to make that wood lot more productive and producing a higher quality of timber.”

SB 365 still offers the potential to help provide a solution to that problem, but the legal fight over its implementation is far from over. When asked if there are any plans to introduce a measure similar to HB 183 during the next legislative session, Stock said it is too soon to tell and noted “everyone is just trying to assess the fallout from today’s vote.”