Tucked away in a corner of the Senate's version of the massive tax bill is the indelicate matter of chicken poop.
With Americans eating twice as many birds as they did a decade ago, the dilemma of what to do with chicken litter, as it is euphemistically called, has become a 20 million-ton-a-year problem. For years, farmers used poultry waste as fertilizer, but fish-killing Pfiesteria outbreaks in the waterways of the Delmarva peninsula are prompting measures outlawing the practice.
Enter PEEP--the Poultry Energy Power Act--a measure introduced by Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), whose state hosts a good portion of the nation's poultry industry. The provision, inserted by Roth and 14 co-sponsors into the tax bill, would give a tax credit to energy facilities that burn chicken litter for power generation.
The tax break represents a classic example of a marriage common in Congress, a convenient union between a company with a specific legislative need and a senator powerful enough to deliver. The question about PEEP, as with other such pairings, is whether it represents the best solution to a public policy dilemma--or a $50 million-a-year boon to a few companies that have pioneered the technology in Britain and want a government subsidy to use it here.
This proposal did not fall from the sky. There is a chicken litter lobbyist. His name is Steve Katsurinis and he works for McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe. Katsurinis and a team that includes McGuire, Woods environmental lawyer Sherry Tucker have been paid about $120,000 over the last year and a half to work on PEEP, according to lobbying reports.
Katsurinis is working for the British company, Fibrowatt Ltd., and Catamount Energy Corp., a Rutland, Vt., utility specializing in alternative power. Catamount is an investor in one of the three Fibrowatt plants that turn half of England's poultry litter to electricity--the only ones operating in the world. Catamount and Fibrowatt want to build similar plants here.
PEEP irks U.S. companies that believe they have better ideas about how to eliminate chicken waste in an environmentally sound way, but no Washington lobbyist to plead their cause. AgriRecycle Inc. of Springfield, Mo., processes chicken manure into pollution-free fertilizer pellets. "We're a market-driven company," said chief operating officer Mike Ferguson. "We don't depend on the government."
Fibrowatt's lobbying efforts have not been confined to Roth. Another co-sponsor, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), visited the British plants last year, Tucker said. The clipped English of Fibrowatt executives has also become common in Minnesota turkey country--promising new jobs and the astonishing notion of paying farmers for bird droppings.
"I'm a small-town farm boy, and I'm a little concerned," said Kandiyohi County (Minn.) commissioner Bruce Shuck. "I have to answer the constituents who live in my neighborhood where trucks are going to be carrying 100 tons a day forever."
Without the tax break, Fibrowatt's efforts to build a plant here would be economically unfeasible. Given the low price of oil and gas, alternative energy sources are too expensive to be competitive. Britain provides Fibrowatt with a substantial subsidy.
Tucker said the subsidy would help the company "level the playing field with conventional fuels," but predicted that "other people are going to get into this."
But others question whether burning the waste is the best approach. Brad Powers, co-chairman of Maryland's Animal Waste Technology Work Group, helped evaluate 120 proposals this year on how to process the state's poultry waste. The group concluded that AgriRecycle's pelletizing technology deserved a $500,000 grant to adapt it to the needs of a Perdue operation in Maryland.
"Our group, generally speaking, does not believe that burning the manure is the best solution," Powers said. "We believe the organic matter is sufficiently valuable that it doesn't make sense to destroy it."
As for PEEP's fate in Congress, there has also been squawking. Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee--and from a state where oil and gas are of more interest than energy from chicken droppings--is opposed to the measure.
"He doesn't have a problem with entrepreneurial new approaches to creating fuel or creating electricity," said Archer spokesman Trent Duffy. "He just doesn't think the tax credit should be expanded. That's his only beef with it. And I'm not talking turkey, either."