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Friday, April 1, 2011

Obama Energy Speech Ignites Biomass Firestorm on Capitol Hill

President Obama's energy speech Wednesday caused some excitement among the proponents of wood and biomass energy. Thrown in the mix of his energy plan for our country was the following comment:

"Another substitute for oil that holds tremendous promise is renewable biofuels – not just ethanol, but biofuels made from things like switchgrass, wood chips, and biomass."

But I thought it sounded vaguely familiar.

Through the magic of Google, I was able to recall President Bush's 2006 and 2007 State of the Union addresses...

2006: "We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass."
2007: " We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — using everything from wood chips, to grasses to agricultural wastes."

If you've been following this blog the last three months you know that wood energy is more efficient when delivered as heat than as liquid fuel; plus, it is reality now, not just a dream for our presidents. But knowing that the President Obama and his staff probably have not been following Go Wood (yet!), I decided to try to get a call through to someone to let them know what key points of wood energy they were missing.

I didn't really expect to get through to anyone who knew anything, but I was surprised that after a few transfers I was speaking with a Mr. John Smalley, assistant to the president's chief of Staff, William Dailey. After a few brief words of introduction, I explained that I thought the president had a more comprehensive story to tell about bioenergy than just cellulosic ethanol.

Mr. Smalley listened for about four seconds before he interrupted me with, "we in the administration believe that reliance on oil and gasoline are the most serious security threats facing the country, and that by developing these alternative fuels and electric cars we can start to reduce that reliance." Perfect opening for me to counter with, "Yes, but by increasing the amount of heating done in our country with wood we could reduce oil consumption by millions of barrels per year, as well as reduce the amount of coal-, nuclear-, and natural-gas-based power that we consume heating our homes with electricity. And the cost of doing so would be much more economical than running our cars with cellulosic ethanol."

That was when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

Mr. Smalley's voice suddenly softened and sounded more energetic. Glad you mentioned wood heating, he said. It just so happened that the president was a big fan of wood heating, and that he was having the old fireplaces in the White House uncovered and renovated so that they could be used for official state functions. Even more surprising, they were having pellet stoves placed in the bedrooms; Mrs. Obama thought they made the rooms cozy on cold nights.

Well, I guess you could say I was dumbfounded...who would have guessed? But little did I know that dumbfounded was going to turn to outright shock at what happened next.

Mr. Smalley told me to hang on the line, he wanted to put me through to an aide of Senator Harry Reid of Nevada!

The next thing I know, a voice on the other end is telling me that Senator Reid loved sitting by a wood fire in his log home up on Lake Tahoe. Said he liked the sound and smell of crackling logs while he sat and read cowboy poetry. (That's what he said...I didn't know cowboys wrote poetry!) But the main thing he wanted me to know was that at the president's urging, the Senate was going to find special funding for two key issues, and one of them was utilization of woody biomass for various forms of energy, including biomass heating! The other key issue was reviving the housing industry. (More wood! I was thinking...)

I mentioned that I understood that the Congress was going through some big budget battles and that all kinds of programs were being cut, rather than increased. But he said that Senator Reid had a large pool of funds, around $105 billion, that he needed to cut out of the new health care program, and that he was going to move that money into biomass energy and housing programs. He encouraged me to check with my Pennsylvania Senator Casey, because he was one of the leaders pulling the new legislation together for Senator Reid.

Well, with a private number for Senator Casey's office provided by Senator Reid's aide, I forged ahead with what was turning out to be an unbelievable day. Already, I was thinking, boy, this is going to make a great Go Wood posting!

Mr. Casey's personal secretary answered my next call, and before I knew it, "Bob" and I (he said to call him Bob!) were chatting like old pals. Now, more than a few Pennsylvania liberal Democrats have suspected for a while that Bob was a "closet utilitarian", and I can confirm that it is completely true. He went on for more than a half an hour telling me about how the whole history of Pennsylvania was centered on energy and lumber, about all the grand old homes in towns like Ridgeway, Wellsboro, and Scranton that were built by the lumber barons in the old days. He also said that the key to returning economic prosperity to Pennsylvania was to properly harvest and utilize our state's natural resources, meaning coal, natural gas, and timber, he said, and he wasn't going to let "a bunch of long-haired, weak-kneed old tree-huggers" sap the economic life-blood out of Pennsylvania. Part of the legislation he was drafting in the new legislation for Senator Reid included a special exemption for the Allegheny National Forest from the US Forest Service management planning process and a fast-track designation for the ANF that would allow immediate resumption of harvesting on the whole forest other than park sites. Included, he said, is a special allocation of the funding to incentivize the removal of all non-commercial small-diameter stands for biomass, in order to act as a boot-strap to the biomass energy industry in the state.

But Bob, I asked, will the House of Representatives go for it?

Well, you guessed it. He gave me another number, and next thing you know, I'm talking with Ms. Pelosi herself!

Ms. Pelosi (I called her Nancy, but she told me to to call her Madame Speaker. I started to mention...but then I just let it drop) told me that biomass energy had been the cornerstone of the House of Representatives' agenda ever since she had become Speaker, and that if the Republicans hadn't been holding out on that silly little immigration thing, we would all be riding around in biomass-powered SmartCars by now. She said that northern California was one of the most productive hemp-growing regions of the world, and that the growers of Marin County in particular were extremely high on the idea that the cellulosic by-product of their crops might someday fuel the country. And now that the Obama Energy Plan was in the works, we were all going to be able to focus on biomass instead of bullets and borders.

Well, that last comment got a little too political for me, since I don't follow all that stuff. But I thanked her for the information, wished her well in her efforts, and hung up the phone, determined to follow up her lead that the Republicans in Congress were the real hold-up to the biomass economy.

My next call was to the junior senator from Pennsylvania, the Republican Pat Toomey. He further surprised me by revealing that he, in fact, had been following Go Wood since it's inception in late December, that he agreed completely with the analysis on this site, and that he had also used more firewood this year than last, which he considered as a sure sign that Global Warming was a hoax.

Senator Toomey shared with me the Republican plans for increasing biomass utilization in the country. He mentioned that just this week Republican congressman Dan Lungren from California had come under Democratic criticism for his cost-cutting legislation that was reported simply as a bill to replace compostable bowls and spoons with styrofoam and plastic alternatives. But the bill, he said, also included a mandate to replace the 83,676 plastic toilet seats in DC federal buildings with American-made wooden toilet seats. The wooden seats, he explained, were more cost-effective because they hold up better under the weight of heavy usage...and besides, they had a calming effect on users in their rare moments of reflection. In addition, he shared with me House Speaker Mr. Boehner's still confidential legislation to use the newly-enacted tanning bed tax revenues to fund the development of new high-tech wood-fired tanning solutions. I tried to get more details, but he said he was under an oath of secrecy to let The Speaker unveil this productive Republican "re-direction of yet another misguided Democratic tax increase."

Well, my head is spinning just relating all these late-breaking developments to you. President Obama will go down in history as the "President of Wood" if I have anything to say about it. I'll bet you're as excited as I am that our country is about to Go Wood again. Pass this news along to your wood industry friends, if you have any that can still afford their internet connection. And have a great April Fool's Day. :-)

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wood should be the fuel of the 21st Century and it is very encouraging to see so many of those in power share this view. It is not necessary, however, to promote wood at the expense of either health care or proper environmental review. Otherwise, it may as well be the 1sth Century. Lets just push wood, period.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chuck

I was hoping you were joking all the way thru even though I forgot it was Apr 1st. Those people would not know efficient energy from a screwdriver.
JLK

Anonymous said...

April Fool's post?

Chuck Ray said...

YES, DEFINITELY! APRIL FOOLS! Guess my humor is more subtle than I thought. Bob and I aren't really that close...maybe we will be now :-)

jon said...

Beautiful, but what of the future of biomass driven steam cars?

rightwinggreen said...

The shame of it? If it were true, it would be a great day for wood, the environment, the economy, energy independence, and the country as a whole. Too bad politicians just enjoy talking big about energy and don't enjoy actually understanding anything about it.