Our Version of Groundhog Day

The inclusion of minimum pellet fuel requirements in a piece of federal regulation is misguided.
By Tim Portz | February 09, 2019

In the 1993 comedy “Groundhog Day,” Bill Murray’s character becomes stuck in a repeating time loop, punctuated morning after morning by a radio alarm clock playing “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. The film uses this plot foundation to showcase Murray’s dry, perfectly timed humor, and it has become a fan favorite. Additionally, the film introduced into popular culture the use of the expression Groundhog Day, which refers to something locked in recurrence, usually with negative connotation. Certainly, our industry’s Groundhog Day is the perpetually stalled minimum pellet fuel requirements promulgated in the U.S. EPA’s New Source Performance Standard.

Last week, the Pellet Fuels Institute submitted extensive comments outlining our opposition to the inclusion of minimum pellet fuel requirements in the rule, and the legal rationale behind it. To be fair, our comments were simply a refrain of the very same argument the PFI made nearly five years ago, in May 2014. First, the EPA does not have the legal authority to include minimum pellet fuel requirements within the NSPS. And second, the inclusion of such standards would do nothing to help achieve the air quality goals that inspired the regulation in the first place.

Minimum pellet fuel requirements are not the only aspect of the NSPS currently under review, and the closing weeks of 2018 were among the busiest of the year for the hearth industry, as everyone in the sector was working to finalize their positions, prepare and edit their comments, and submit them on time. While the issue of minimum pellet fuel requirements is directly and uniquely felt by pellet manufacturers throughout the country, the sell-through provisions extended and not extended in the EPA’s amendments will likely generate the most robust and passionate debate. For now, a two-year sell-through provision has been granted to hydronic heaters and forced-air furnaces, while a similar sell-through option for cordwood and pellet stoves has not. The result is that specialty hearth retailers of all kinds face significant uncertainty regarding what inventory will be legal to display and sell just one heating season from now. During a handful of conversations with pellet appliance retailers in the past few months, I’ve heard about delayed or reduced inventory replenishment orders. When multiplied across the entire hearth supply chain, the complaints of economic disruption are far from hyperbole.

The biggest casualty for the PFI throughout all of this regulatory wrangling is that without a thorough review of our position and the reasons for it, a casual observer might assume that the PFI is generally opposed to minimum pellet performance standards. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, within the past year, I’ve heard industry peers wonder aloud why the PFI Standards Program set such a high bar regarding monthly testing and audit schedules. The reality is that the PFI worked hard to build a standards program that walked the fine line of satisfying regulators with their robustness without driving producers away with high-cost implementation and ongoing participation.

Where pellet fuel requirements and appliance sell-through provisions end up after this process draws to a close is anyone’s guess, as is when this process will end. It is worth noting that the comment deadline came and went within an agency running on a skeleton crew during a federal government shutdown.

The inclusion of minimum pellet fuel requirements in a piece of federal regulation is misguided. The existence of measurable qualities in a fuel product is not an apt justification for inclusion in federal law. What shouldn’t get lost in our opposition to where these regulations should and should not reside is our commitment to the production of a high-quality heating product. The manufacture and use of wood pellets as a solid heating fuel can contribute to improved local air quality. As evidence, look no further than the numerous wood stove swap-out programs that incentivize consumers to replace older cordwood appliances with cleaner-burning pellet appliances. We’re proud to represent the producers of this country’s cleanest-burning solid wood fuel product, and are hopeful the comments of PFI and our industry peers bring this matter to a timely and favorable conclusion.

Author: Tim Portz
Executive Director, Pellet Fuels Institute