What do you think of when you hear the term “renewable energy” source? Probably wind, solar or perhaps geothermal, right? How about something called “black liquor?” No, we’re not talking about Sambuca (though that can be tasty in small doses). This is a stinking and rather toxic waste product of the paper milling process. And many paper mills, including some in Maryland, burn it as fuel. The real icing on the cake is that they earn big government subsidies for doing so since this sludge qualifies under state law as a renewable resource. Today’s story features the Luke Mill, located on the Potomac River in Maryland. (Baltimore Sun)

Even as other factories in this stretch of Western Maryland have closed down, this mill has managed to survive.

That’s in part because the 10-story-high boiler deep inside the mill burns a sludge known as black liquor.

The substance, a mix of caustic chemicals and wood waste left over from the papermaking process, was once pollution, a byproduct that fouled the rocky banks of the Potomac.

Now, Maryland calls it green energy.

This isn’t actually a “new” form of energy. Paper mills have been burning it since the 30s and there have been complaints about the burning of black liquor for years now. The Washington Post featured a number of paper mills engaging in this type of scheme back in 2013, finding them in various spots around the nation. And they’re all using the corrosive substance as a way to either get around or even profit from government mandates requiring the use of renewable energy.

Thanks to a wrinkle in the definition of renewable, the lion’s share of the money used to meet those standards is flowing to paper companies that burn “black liquor,” a byproduct of the wood-pulping process. Paper mills have been using black liquor to generate most of their power needs since the 1930s.

Environmentalists are up in arms over what they see as a perversion of the intent of the law. Instead of encouraging new clean technology, they say, it is rewarding an old practice that emits as much carbon dioxide as burning coal.

One activist back then described black liquor as, “the pink slime of energy.” The chief complaint from environmental proponents is that the black liquor emits as much or even more carbon dioxide than coal when it’s burned. But is that all that’s being given off? Residents near the mills as well as workers have described a stench which, “reeked with the rotten-egg, cooked-cabbage scent” of the waste products. I’m no scientist (though I’m available to play on TV), but as far as I know, carbon dioxide doesn’t actually smell like anything. If your nose is picking up those scents, there’s something else cooking up in the mix. Even the WaPo analysis mentioned that in addition to the carbon dioxide, the black liquor contained toxins that are harmful to people and the environment.

It’s not just the pollution angle that has people angry. This scheme is allowing the paper mills to not only comply with, but exceed government mandates for using renewable energy. This means that they’re not only saving money on fuel and earning subsidies, but they can sell renewable energy credits to other industries (such as fossil fuel plants) who can’t meet their government quotas. This is the same sort of scheme that goes on with the RINs (renewable identification numbers) in the ethanol game.

At any rate, next time somebody wants to talk to you about all the progress we’re making on renewable energy, ask them how much of it is coming from black liquor in their state. It’s yet another example of government mandate programs running off the rails and being wide open to fraud and abuse.