As New York makes an energy transition, fireplace users get a pass

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By Dan Sears

As New York City and the state begin enforcing stringent new climate laws this year, the oldest form of heating – wood-burning – has been excluded from the regulations.

Fireplaces and wood stoves aren’t mentioned in the final rules that went into effect this month for the city’s Local Law 97, which forces buildings to cut their carbon emissions. They also were left out of the rules of the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, or CLCPA, which are expected to be finalized this year.

Raya Salter, a member of the New York State Climate Action Council that helped craft the CLCPA, says that’s by design.

“Wood-burning for residential use is a massive source of emissions in New York state, and also to human health,” said Salter, the executive director of the Energy Justice Law and Policy Center.

“This is concentrated in the rural areas, largely upstate where it’s very cold, where folks are actually burning wood for primary and secondary heating,” she added. “But nobody’s banning wood-burning stoves because there’s a really important understanding that folks are using this because they need it because it’s cold.”

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That means the dwindling number of New York City homes with working fireplaces can keep lighting logs – for now.

“It’s warm and it’s cozy and it’s also kind of hypnotic watching the flames dance,” said West Village resident Katherine Schoonover, who has six working fireplaces in her historic row house.

“But from a climate standpoint, they have to be eliminated. We have to give way to reality,” said Schoonover, who only lights fires occasionally – usually for guests, a nice snowfall or some holiday cheer.

New York City implemented a ban on fireplaces in new construction in 2014, and only around 3,300 legal and functioning fireplaces remain in the five boroughs, according to a 2014 New York Times report.

But it’s a different story outside New York City. The state is the nation’s second-largest buyer of firewood, and many of its regions are completely reliant on wood for heat. Just over 113,000 homes burn almost 2 billion tons of trees annually – an amount that is roughly equal to the weight of 5,500 Empire State Buildings.

“Protecting wood-burning methods of home-heating is critical for upstate and North Country New Yorkers,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, who represents most of the region, in an email. “It is absolutely imperative that wood-burning methods are protected to ensure my constituents who rely on it can properly heat their homes and keep their families safe and warm this winter.”

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Although only about 2.5% of the state’s households burn wood for heat, this small portion is responsible for 90% of the fine particulate matter pollution attributed to residential home heating, according to a study published in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. And while banning or restricting the form of heat isn’t on state and local agendas, switching to a more environmentally friendly heat source isn’t a viable option for many homeowners.

“It would be a hardship. I’ve recently become single and my income dropped to half,” said Lee Ann Sporn, a biology professor at Paul Smith’s College in Adirondack Park. “If someone required that I install electric heat or heat pumps, it would be a deal-breaker for me. I likely wouldn’t want to stay in my house. So it’s that big of a thing for me.”

Nationwide, wood-burning is the largest source of fine particulate matter, exceeding emissions from motor vehicles, according to a study by a coalition of Northeast air quality agencies.

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“The combustion – it’s a health issue, it’s an environmental justice issue, but it needs to be done in a way where the transition is affordable and sensitive to people’s needs and the comfort of their homes,” Salter said.

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