June 01, 2020

Eyes on the Prize: Working for a fair and accurate standard for wood heaters

People have said to me over the years that they don’t envy the job that my colleagues and I have at HPBA: trying to forge industry positions with members who can have very different interests and positions on a particular issue. Frankly, it’s what I enjoy – although I readily admit that it can be a challenge and be frustrating at times. The process can be difficult for our members as well, but since it is transparent and they are involved, they trust it and respect its decisions.

But what is truly frustrating is to see an account that combines inaccuracies, the advantages of perfect hindsight, and “connects the dots” where they simply cannot be connected. Unfortunately, John Ackerly’s recently-published article, “EPA proposal to relax wood stove rules sows division between states and industry – and between industry factions,” an account of the long road of NSPS advocacy, is exactly that.

I will not respond to each and every inaccurate assertion and conclusion in the interest of brevity. But I will address some overarching concerns caused by Mr. Ackerly’s article.

First, HPBA’s positions were not the result of dominance by central heater members or favoritism towards their products. Central heaters were in the difficult position of being regulated for the first time, unlike wood stoves, which had been regulated since 1988. Ratcheting down on existing regulations is much easier for a regulatory agency than creating new emissions limits on an entirely new category of appliance. We certainly did not – and do not – agree with many of EPA’s decisions on wood stove emissions, but we were at least “talking the same language” with EPA on those regulations.

More importantly, Mr. Ackerly seems to think that somehow a few companies led HPBA down a path that ignored the concerns of the majority of wood-burning appliance manufacturers. Nothing could be further from the truth. HPBA’s Solid Fuel Hearth Appliance Section, of which all of the manufacturers affected by EPA’s NSPS are members, received (and continues to receive) regular updates on all major issues and developments from our government affairs staff. In addition, the section votes on all major issues – with each company having one vote – and the decisions are reached after vigorous discussion and reaching a consensus. The idea that staff made decisions on behalf of the industry without consultation is preposterous. My colleagues and I are very aware of who pays our salaries –  our members. Our job is to represent their interests. Further, the governance of our section does not result in HPBA “working for the lowest common denominator” – decisions arrived at by consensus prevent that from happening. This does not mean that some members of the section agree with all decisions, but I am confident that the majority of our members are satisfied with the process and the results of the process.

Mr. Ackerly also questions some of the decisions made by HPBA without all of the necessary facts or insight. I will raise two examples of many in his article. He faults HPBA for delaying the legal challenge to the 2015 final NSPS regulation as if it were a delaying tactic – and one motivated by what amounts to “regulatory greed,” for that matter. In actuality, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals always directs the parties to negotiate their differences. As long as all parties are negotiating, the court will delay the briefing schedule. HPBA and EPA worked for many, many months to find common ground and avoid more litigation. Further, we jointly filed motions to continue to delay the litigation. So rather than being a delaying tactic, the delay was an exercise in good faith that the parties could talk, reason, and arrive at an extrajudicial solution. And as a matter of fact, HPBA is still pursuing one issue in the litigation about which we feel strongly.

Mr. Ackerly also accuses HPBA (staff) of “regulatory greed” by not supporting Senator Carper’s original 2018 changeout and sell-through legislative proposal that contained language that would also freeze NSPS regulations as promulgated by EPA in 2014. The key here is that the proposal would have totally upended the negotiations with EPA, i.e., any agreement with the Agency to change anything in the regulations would have been blocked. Given that there were (and still are) regulatory requirements that need addressing, why would HPBA agree to that? Again, the section was appraised of the risks of the proposal and agreed with staff’s recommendations. If we had had the benefit of Mr. Ackerly’s 20-20 hindsight – i.e., that we have, to date, made no substantive progress with EPA – then perhaps we would have reached a different decision on the proposal, since we truly favored the support of a national change-out program. One of the challenges of making just about any major decision is that you seldom have all of the information that you need to make that “perfect” decision. It is so much easier to be judgmental years later, when there is more information available.

Another erroneous assertion in the article is that many companies resigned from membership in HPBA due to differences of opinion with our strategy. For confidentiality reasons, I will not go into any specific reasons given by our former members for their resignations. But I will say that Mr. Ackerly has confused the companies and their reasons, resulting in a narrative that sounds like there is a wholesale migration out of HPBA. That is simply untrue.

I am also puzzled why Mr. Ackerly felt it necessary to predict financial troubles for HPBA because of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on our trade show. Yes, the trade show represents a significant portion of HPBA’s annual revenues, and the show supports the association’s programs, such as government affairs, research, promotion, and education. But there is no dire circumstance overhanging HPBA – and its ability to survive. As are all organizations producing trade shows, we are planning for multiple scenarios since we do not know what the situation will be in March 2021. We continue to plan for a show in Nashville, as well as other approaches if we are unable to hold the show. Whatever scenario occurs, HPBA will survive and continue to provide valuable services to the hearth and barbecue industries in 2021, 2022, and beyond.

In conclusion, I would prefer that Mr. Ackerly avoid the melodrama of disputes, favoritism, resignations, and financial ruin, and instead focus on how to keep the wood-burning appliance industry healthy so that it can continue to innovate and serve a need for the American people: to provide physical and emotional warmth to our homes with renewable fuel that has a low carbon footprint.

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