By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – A bill that could help pay to retrain employees of idled biomass plants was supported on Tuesday during a Senate hearing at the State House.
Senate Bill 603-FN would authorize the commissioner of the Department of Employment Security to use up to $250,000 in existing job skill funds for training and job matching for employees of biomass and related forest product industries who have been recently laid off.
The bill was heard before the Senate Commerce Committee.
Jasen Stock, executive director of the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, said there have been significant impacts not only to those who worked at closed plants, mostly in the North Country, but for those who work in the woods who used to deliver wood chips to plants. Also impacted are woodlot owners and the landscape itself, which is not being cut as much because there is no market for about 40 percent of the product that would come off a typical land clearing project, he said.
Based on surveys, he estimated that since 2018 about 32,000 acres which would have otherwise been logged in the state, did not go out to sale and were not logged because they could not find a market or a bidder.
Stock said there are 120 direct jobs and about 900 indirect jobs impacted by the loss of the biomass plant operations.
Opponents of the bill, including Gov. Chris Sununu, argue that the state should not be propping up a losing business operation like biomass because it can’t make a profit, and forcing utilities and ratepayers to pay for it is wrong.
Plants that are impacted include ones in Bethlehem, Bridgewater, and Springfield. “It is having an effect on the landscape and land management,” he said.
Efforts to prop up the industry and provide a way for the wood to make it to the biomass plants to make electricity was vetoed by Sununu in the past two years.
Those workers, Stock said, “are still adjusting,” and need to find new ways to put their various skills to work.
State Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, a candidate for governor, introduced the bill as a way to help an industry recover and would earmark money that already exists to help individuals with retraining.
He said the bill is about engaging those workers to find meaningful new work and to match their skills with ones that can be useful in their communities. No one spoke against the bill.
It will next be voted on by the Senate Commerce Committee.