Wood Stove Politics: Democrats, Republicans and Unlikely Bedfellows

Wood stoves are finally getting attention in Washington, D.C., and they will get even more next year.
By John Ackerly | June 26, 2014

Wood stoves are finally getting attention in Washington, D.C., and they will get even more next year.  Most of the focus surrounds the U.S. EPA’s proposed regulations, but residential heating, ventilating, and air conditioning (HVAC) tax credits are also on the chopping block.

The sides are not as evenly drawn as one might expect. Some conservative Republicans supported wood and pellet stove tax credits this year, and some of the most liberal Democrats urged the EPA to soften its emission regulations. Republicans are mostly concerned with the economic impacts of these policies on industry, and Democrats with the health impacts of wood smoke.   

So far, Congressional strategy of the stove industry has been to mobilize support of Republicans, most of whom are friends of fossil fuels.  Such is the topsy-turvy world of wood stove politics.  It gets stranger.

People who heat with wood and pellets mainly do it because it’s cheaper than the alternatives.  The attraction of newer stoves—the ones that industry will build in coming years—is that they can be more efficient than the old and will save consumers even more money.  Demonstrably higher efficiencies are key in motivating consumers to replace an older stove sooner. Despite this, industry is fighting against consumer hangtags that would list the efficiency of the appliance.

Even more surprising and counterintuitive is that the EPA is also proposing to eliminate consumer hangtags, but at the same time is spearheading ever more detailed and clear consumer hangtags for Energy Star products, automobiles and other things.

Here is the dilemma of reducing stove emissions, and it’s not too different from power plants: regulation only covers new stoves and grandfathers all older ones, which produce far more smoke.  Industry makes a legitimate point that the focus should be on retiring older stoves, not making new ones marginally cleaner than they already are.  Industry trade group Hearth, Patio and Barbeque Association may end up going to court with a legal challenge that the EPA has not “adequately demonstrated” that making stricter emission standards is the “best system of emission reduction” because it didn’t sufficiently show that the alternative of retiring older stoves isn’t a better system of emission reduction. 

Here is another example of the extreme topsy-turvy nature of wood stove politics: if a court sided with HPBA and directed the EPA to regulate existing stoves, conservative Republicans supporting the industry would flee in droves.  One of the only tenets that the Obama administration has to move these regulations forward with Republicans is the assurance that existing stoves will be grandfathered and with no requirement to remove them or stop reinstalling old ones purchased on the secondhand market. 

Industry favors voluntary, not regulatory, measures to remove old stoves from operation.  On a national scale, that would cost hundreds of millions. If that were the solution, there would be little support from conservative Republicans who are not fans of “cash for clunker” type programs.  (As some predicted, a program audit found it was not an efficient way to reduce carbon output.)  Of all of the letters to the EPA from conservative Republicans, none suggested any large-scale funding to tackle the problem of existing stoves, and even HPBA has not put effort into that solution.

Democrats and moderate Republicans have been more supportive of stoves and boilers as a renewable energy solution and are making some progress at the state level.  Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Oregon are starting or expanding rebate and change out programs. and other states will be joining that list. Democrats in charge of the EPA are moving much slower, if at all, and still seem to regard stoves mainly as a pollution problem, not an energy solution.

The most likely result is an NSPS that enacts stricter regulations on new stoves and boilers, and a continuation of small, local programs that offer voluntary rebates to remove stoves from areas with particularly high levels of wintertime particulate matter. The result will be a very gradual reduction in wood smoke, as the EPA tries to balance practical and legitimate concerns. This will be less impactful than the Democrats wanted, and more intrusive than Republicans wanted.  The real beneficiary will be consumers who heat with wood and pellets, who will finally have access to cleaner, higher-efficiency appliances.  Maybe the EPA will even allow them to see that information on a hangtag.

Author: John Ackerly
President, Alliance for Green Heat