The atmosphere was very heated last week at the State House and in the world of Maine politics. Words such as “cannibalization” and “impeachment” were in the news.
Maine’s chief executive is convinced the White House and partisan interests are behind an unfavorable report from the U.S. Department of Labor.
A political wunderkind unearthed and reheated old and ugly quotes from a rural Republican lawmaker that led to calls of resignation from Democratic Party leaders. And it turns out the heat is off the speaker of the House after the ethics commission ruled that he can have a job and still do his job as speaker.
And new fuel was added to the fire of the debate about Medicaid expansion, as Republican Sens. Roger Katz of Augusta and Tom Saviello of Wilton introduced a compromise plan for consideration.
But what may be one of the biggest Maine political issues of the year, with impacts on the races for governor and the congressional 2nd District, was smoldering quietly as a policy question in the state capital of Massachusetts. The federal Environmental Protection Agency took public comments in Boston last week about its proposed rule changes for residential wood heaters.
According to the EPA, smoke from residential wood heaters contains fine particle pollution along with other pollutants, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, black carbon, and air toxins such as benzene.
We all can agree that having less of all of the above in the air is in everyone’s best interest, but determining how we get there is far more difficult.
The EPA’s proposed rules would ensure that manufacturers produce wood stoves, wood-pellet stoves, forced-air wood furnaces, wood boilers, fireplace inserts and masonry heaters that burn much cleaner than today’s models. The new clean standard, however, could add 25 percent or more to the cost of new wood heat systems, making it harder for homeowners to replace dirty, unsafe or inefficient old-technology wood heaters. Maine’s wood heat manufacturers, burgeoning pellet industry, real estate agents, home builders and every person who helps feed his family by cutting, delivering and stacking firewood have cause for concern, given the projected costs of these new regulations. That is a lot of people here in the nation’s most rural and forested state.
The EPA’s proposed rules would not apply to seven million old-technology wood heaters in operation across the country. As Gov. Paul LePage pointed out last week, “The draft rule would not fulfill its purpose to reduce the amount of harmful wood smoke in the air and in fact, would do just the opposite, making it prohibitively expensive for homeowners to purchase a new, more efficient stove.”
Others make the case that the quality of the fuel source and heat of the fire have a significant impact on how “dirty” the smoke is. And it is not illegal to burn wet, green wood. Well, at least not yet.
Patricia Aho, commissioner of the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, testified at the EPA hearing, raising concerns with several aspects of the proposed rules and their impact on Maine. Aho pointed out the new rules would make it a violation of federal law to use fuels not specified in the owner’s manual.
Aho testified, “Homeowners who burn anything other than dry wood as specified by the owner’s manual would be committing a federal offense,”she said.
On the bright side, parents now will be able to threaten their kids with imprisonment if they do not get the wood stacked right away so it can dry before the onset of heating season.
The comment period on the EPA’s proposed rule runs through May 5. If the agency issues a final rule before the November elections, or about the time we are firing up our wood stoves for the first time of the season, this smoldering policy question could become a very hot or maybe even explosive political issue.
Half of the houses in Maine use wood as a supplemental heating supply, and 14 percent of Maine homes use wood as a primary heat source, making our state second to only Vermont in wood heat dependence.
Maine’s 2nd District has the highest concentration of wood and pellet burning in the country. The Republican nominee for that office could have an excellent opportunity to run against an overly broad and expensive rule authored by President Barack Obama’s EPA.
Likewise, LePage could use the rule to rally his rural base of support and to attack U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud for not doing more as a Democratic member of Congress to prevent the EPA from messing with our beloved wood heat and our job-producing, forest products industry.
Properly executed, the wood stove rules give Republican candidates a chance to be a champion for a trusted and cherished Maine tradition. Whether you cut it with an axe, saw or splitter, it stacks up to a winning political opportunity.
Dan Demeritt is a Republican political consultant and public relations specialist. He is a former campaign aide and communications director for Gov. Paul LePage. He can be contacted at: [email protected] Twitter: @demerittda