The forest products industry is one of Maine’s most important industries. It is our heritage. It supports jobs and uses resources found right here in our state. In fact, one out of every 20 jobs in Maine is associated with the forest products industry and its total economic impact is $8 billion.

Unfortunately, a combination of cheap oil and natural gas prices and the weak Canadian dollar is causing the industry to struggle. In the last three years alone, five Maine pulp and paper mills have closed, putting countless families and neighbors out of work.

This session, the Legislature took steps to help a critical part of the forest products industry, the biomass sector. When I first ran to be a state representative back in 2012, I ran on a platform of supporting hardworking Mainers and ensuring jobs stayed in our state. So I was proud to take votes supporting measures that help our biomass industry.

Maine’s biomass industry is vital to the economic health of working families and communities around the state. The jobs this industry provides are especially important because they are often found in the areas of the state that were hardest hit in the recession and have been the slowest to recover. In my area, we’ve seen job losses through layoffs at Huhtamaki in Fairfield, the closure of the UTC Fire & Security plant in Pittsfield and the announced shutdown of Madison Paper Industries.

Biomass energy is derived from plant materials like wood chips and paper mill residues, so it is a sustainable, renewable energy source.

According to the Biomass Power Association, the industry supports nearly 150 direct jobs and 900 indirect jobs in Maine. However, these jobs are in danger. Two biomass plants have already closed and the remaining four are also at risk of shutting down.

The industry pumps $115 million annually into Maine’s economy when the mills are operating. And, according to Dana Doran of the Professional Logging Contractors of Maine, “biomass energy, more than any other energy source, keeps almost 100 percent of its benefits in the state.” The forest products industry will be further at risk if we lose the biomass industry.

Maine’s natural resource-based economy generates billions of dollars for our state. We need to ensure that our traditional industries grow and do not disappear. To that end, we passed two bills that are now law to help the biomass industry.

The first creates a commission of stakeholders to construct a clear path forward for the biomass industry. It will give us the opportunity to work with members of the forest products industry and energy sector, representatives from relevant state agencies, lawmakers and a University of Maine scientist to identify long-term solutions to boosting this industry and keeping jobs in our state. The commission will report back to the Legislature by December with its findings.

This commission is an opportunity to create desperately needed markets for loggers in this state. It will look at creating economic development opportunities, more efficient uses of biomass that could lead to combined heat and power projects, savings on transmissions projects with distributed generation and district heating for Maine municipalities that are struggling with costs.

This commission will help create a vision for the future.

The second bill we passed prevents the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in the industry while also protecting ratepayers from an increase in their electric bills. The bill will fund two-year, 80 megawatt contracts to biomass facilities at an annual cost of no greater than $6.7 million to the unallocated general fund surplus, also known as the “cascade.”

This bill was the work of a collaborative group of stakeholders to level the playing field to allow biomass power plants to successfully compete for short-term power purchase agreements.

Rural Maine’s economy has struggled to bounce back from the recession and we need to ensure that we don’t lose any more jobs. Both of these bills were passed with bipartisan support. I am pleased that we came together as a Legislature to pass good legislation that looks out for Maine’s hardworking families.

Rep. Stanley Short Jr., a Democat, is serving his second term in the Maine Legislature and represents Pittsfield, Clinton and Detroit.

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