Massive stacks of eastern white pine dwarf Glenn Rowe, a scaler at Hancock Lumber in Bethel in this June 5, 2018, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

The COVID-19-related recession has wreaked havoc on Maine’s economy. Social distancing and travel restrictions have helped our state avoid the high infection levels seen in other areas, but these same measures have affected seasonal businesses and left our economy on the rocks.

During these tough times, Maine must look for every available economic opportunity to support its residents. While seasonal tourism is struggling, Maine has another native industry that our congressional leaders can aid right now: forest products and particularly the use of low-grade wood to heat Maine homes and businesses.

Maine is more reliant on fossil fuel imports than any other state, and encouraging modern wood heating systems would reduce those imports and reduce carbon emissions. It would also provide new markets for low-grade wood, supporting sustainable forestry and keeping foresters, loggers, and truckers employed.

There is a bill before Congress that would extend tax credits to homeowners and businesses that install advanced wood heating, such as those that use chips and pellets in automated systems, reducing installation costs and giving a boost to this Maine-based industry.

The Biomass Thermal Utilization (BTU) Act, S.628, has been before Congress for 10 years without any progress. For the first time, the House of Representatives showed the BTU Act is a priority by including a portion of the tax credit in its “Moving America Forward” infrastructure proposal that passed in late June. The provision providing the same credit to small businesses, however, was left out. Several original cosponsors of the BTU Act, including Maine Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden, recently sent a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, thanking him for supporting the residential provision and urging him to reconsider the small business provision.

Now it is the Senate’s turn to step up for the residents of Maine. While much of the nation has little access to or interest in modern wood heating, Maine’s robust forest industry and cold winters make the fuel a unique opportunity for our clean energy economy. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, original cosponsors of the BTU Act, have provided unwavering support for this legislation over the years. We hope that they will take this opportunity to stand up and fight for this legislation in the 11th hour to get it across the finish line. Mainers need them to make the case now that fair tax treatment for modern wood heating needs to become law for both homeowners and small businesses.

Several working groups of Gov. Janet Mills’ Climate Council have recognized the environmental benefits of modern wood heating, highlighting the role it can play in meeting aggressive greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. Every time a gas, propane, or oil heater is replaced with advanced wood technology, Maine’s net emissions go down and fuel dollars stay in our economy.

Despite the merits of this investment credit, Congress has overlooked it for years. The BTU Act would benefit consumers and the forest-based economy in states across the country, but perhaps none more so than Maine. This legislation would reduce Mainers’ heating costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create jobs during this economic crisis.

The time is right for our representatives in Congress to make the BTU Act a priority and ensure it passes in 2020.

Robert Linkletter is CEO of Maine Woods Pellet Company and president of Linkletter & Sons in Athens Maine. Jim Robbins is former owner and former president of Robbins Lumber Company in Searsmont.