Congress

Climate panel’s Casten holds stake in wood-burning energy firm

Renewable biomass energy company cited for water violations

Rep. Sean Casten, D-Ill., is a member of a House committee created to address climate change. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Sean Casten, a member of a House committee created to address climate change, has a financial stake in a California energy company that burns wood to generate electricity and operates a power plant that repeatedly violated federal water laws.

The first-term Illinois Democrat disclosed a $250,001 to $500,000 stake in Greenleaf Power LLC, a privately held Sacramento, Calif.-headquartered, biomass company, in June, according to his most recent financial disclosure.

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Federal regulators have cited a Greenleaf facility in Connecticut five times since 2016 for violating the Clean Water Act. The facility in Plainfield was releasing lead and solid waste into its surroundings and the adjacent Quinebaug River at levels that surpassed limits under the CWA, EPA records show. Two of the violations came in 2016, one in 2017 and two in 2018, according to the records.

Casten said through a spokeswoman, Maddie Carlos, he owns a “non-controlling, minority stake in Greenleaf” obtained after the financial crash of 2008.

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Greenleaf, which also has plants in California and Canada, was spun off from Recycled Energy Development LLC, where Casten was chief executive before his election to Congress. Casten has since cut ties with the firm.

“Rep. Casten has no control, managerial or otherwise over Greenleaf,” Carlos said, adding that Casten was not aware of the violations. “For all practical purposes, the investment is now arms-length.”

Casten won his seat campaigning in part on addressing climate change, and he was named to the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

 

In a February interview with CQ Roll Call about his post on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Casten, said climate change is an urgent threat. “We have to get the carbon down now,” he said. “I don’t think we have the tools on this committee to do that as quickly as I would like.”

The company that operates the Plainfield facility for Greenleaf sells electricity and renewable-energy credits. Greenleaf describes the facility as a “woody biomass electrical generation” plant that burns “wood recovered from construction and demolition activities and other sustainable wood from forestry and land clearing activities.”

‘Renewable,’ not carbon-free

Biomass — a term that refers to the burning of organic materials, such as food waste and residue, trees, wood waste, mill debris and manure to generate electricity — is often pitched by electric utilities as a renewable energy source due to its broad availability. Still, the process emits climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and often means the elimination of living trees that trap carbon emissions.

Casten is not the only member of the climate committee with personal investments in energy companies.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., listed more than 280 oil and gas wells in his financial disclosure statements to Congress, worth between $2.9 million and $11.5 million. Other committee members, including the chairwoman, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., and ranking member Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., have invested in fossil-energy firms through broader investment funds.

Asked if he could sell his stake, Casten said doing so is possible but would be difficult.

“As a closely-held LLC, there are certain limitations on my ability to sell based on the operating documents of the company — and there are no existing equity holders with an obligation to act as a market-maker in the event one owner wishes to sell their interest,” Casten said in a statement released by his office. “Thus, while there is no prohibition at law that would prevent a sale, as a practical matter, absent the sale or liquidation of the larger company, there are few to no options to sell.”

Greenleaf declined to disclose information about ties to Casten, his investment or his involvement with the firm.

The Plainfield plant sits on a Superfund site called Gallup’s Quarry, where, in the 1970s, the owner allowed the dumping of chemical waste without permits. Metal drums and liquids were dumped in the gravel pit, leaving behind a long-term cleanup project. Groundwater and soil tests are ongoing.

The firm purchased the Connecticut plant in 2015 from Leidos, a defense contractor, for an undisclosed sum.

“This facility holds tremendous promise and we look forward to working closely with the Plainfield community,” Hugh Smith, former president of Greenleaf, said at the time.

Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.

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