- - Monday, March 24, 2014

Nothing chases the chill of a cold winter’s night like pulling a chair up close to a wood-burning stove. The Environmental Protection Agency, which lives in mortal dread that somewhere, someone is enjoying life, wants to eliminate wood-burning stoves. President Obama has agreed to impose a tax on coziness, with new regulations proposed by his Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

These new rules would reduce the maximum airborne particulate emissions for new stoves by 80 percent to 4.5 grams per hour initially, and crank down the allowable level further to 1.3 grams after five years. Achieving these targets will add between $300 and $500 to the cost of a stove, prompting fears that working-class folk who typically burn wood to save money won’t be able to afford to do so. A period of public comment on the proposed standards ends May 5.

“There’s not a stove in the United States that can pass the test right now,” Reg Kelly, founder of Earth Outdoor Furnaces, told a hearing of the Missouri House of Representatives. “This is the death knell of wood burning.” The legislature in the Show Me State considered a measure that would bar state environmental officials from regulating wood stoves.

Besides the new rules on residential wood-burning, there are other draconian federal regulations to deal with. Last year, the EPA imposed standards reducing allowable particles in the air from a tiny 15 micrograms per cubic meter to a miniscule 12 micrograms. By comparison, a lighted cigarette in a closed automobile pumps out 3,000-4,000 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter. The rule isn’t about improving actual air quality, but about Washington asserting control over what sort of businesses can operate and what sort of products Americans can buy.

For many, a wood-burning stove isn’t a luxury, but a necessity to warm the house. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported last week that between 2005 and 2012, the number of U.S. homes in which wood fires served as the main heating source jumped from 1.9 million to 2.5 million. The largest increase occurred in New England and the Middle Atlantic states, where the number of homes relying primarily on wood for warmth rose 50 percent. Another 9 million dwellings across the country use wood as a secondary heating fuel.

A wealthy Bostonian who wants to buy a new wood stove for his weekend cabin in the Berkshires can simply write a bigger check and scrawl on the notation line, “the price of progress.” For the checkout clerk who scans groceries in town and can’t afford the high cost of heating oil (at $4 a gallon), the new rules might mean he’ll have to keep stoking old smoky to keep the kids warm.

An assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation reaped a whirlwind of scorn in 2011 when she told a congressional hearing that the dust kicked up by farmers’ tractors falls within the category of particulate matter, and is thus something the agency is entitled to regulate.

Staying out of trouble with the EPA’s air regulators requires the adoption of the hiker’s ethic of “leave no trace.” If Americans sneeze or otherwise stir up a bit of dust, they’ll pay for it.