U.S. Biomass Energy Facilities Escape Greenhouse Gas Rule
WASHINGTON, DC, January 13, 2011 (ENS) – The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday it will defer greenhouse gas permit requirements for biomass energy production for at least three years for reconsideration of the science and rulemaking.
Sources covered by this decision include facilities that emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, CO2, as a result of burning forest or agricultural products for energy, wastewater treatment and livestock management facilities, landfills and fermentation processes for ethanol production.
On May 13, 2010, EPA announced the Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule and included greenhouse gas emissions from biomass energy in the permit program.
The deferral is in response to a petition by the National Alliance of Forest Owners’ to reconsider the treatment of biomass carbon emissions under the Tailoring Rule. NAFO members own more than 79 million acres of forestlands in 47 states.
The Joseph C. McNeil Generating Station, a biomass incinerator, has been the municipal power plant for Burlington, Vermont since 1981. (Photo by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist courtesy Survival Media)
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said, “We are working to find a way forward that is scientifically sound and manageable for both producers and consumers of biomass energy. In the coming years we will develop a commonsense approach that protects our environment and encourages the use of clean energy.”
“Renewable, homegrown power sources are essential to our energy future, and an important step to cutting the pollution responsible for climate change,” she said.
In letters dated January 12 to Congresswoman Debbie Stabenow, Senator Max Baucus and other biomass supportive lawmakers explaining the deferral, Jackson emphasized her confidence in biomass as an environmentally sound fuel choice.
“As you know,” she wrote, “biomass can be part of a national strategy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and efforts are underway to foster the expansion of renewable resources and promote biomass as ways of addressing climate change and enhancing forest management.”
By July 2011, Jackson said EPA plans to complete a rulemaking that will defer permitting requirements for carbon dioxide emissions from biomass-fired and other biogenic sources for three years. Biogenic sources include ethanol producers.
NAFO president and chief executive Dave Tenny applauded the EPA’s action as “a critical step toward recognizing the full carbon benefits of biomass as a leading source of renewable energy.”
“The three-year moratorium is an appropriate response to NAFO’s request,” said Tenny. “It will allow the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to work with Congress, biomass producers and users, scientists and other interested parties to develop a science-based policy supporting a vibrant biomass energy sector for the long term without penalizing biomass energy production in the interim.”
The furnace at the first U.S. poultry litter-fueled power plant, Fibrominn in Benson, Minnesota on opening day, October 12, 2007. Burning 500,000 tons of litter annually generates power for 40,000 homes. (Photo courtesy Fibrowatt USA)
Biomass power is a $1 billion industry with 80 facilities in 20 states and supports more than 14,000 jobs nationwide. Biomass power plants usually are located in rural communities, creating thousands of jobs and producing millions in revenue for small towns.
Tenny said that NAFO agrees with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s assessment that “renewable, homegrown power sources are essential to our energy future, and an important step to cutting the pollution responsible for climate change.”
Jackson said the EPA will issue guidance soon that will provide a basis for state or local permitting authorities to use to conclude that the use of biomass as fuel is the Best Available Control Technology for greenhouse gas emissions until July when the agency expects to complete a rulemaking action on the three-year deferral.
Environmentalists object to the EPA’s deferral decision.
Attorney David Carr with the Southern Environmental Law Center said, “This is a 180-degree change in EPA’s policy and we vigorously disagree. While it’s reasonable for the EPA to continue evaluating the issue, it should not grant a blanket exemption in the meantime to industries planning to set up shop and burn trees for electricity, something it declined to do last year.”
Wood waste helps power Lockheed Martin’s aircraft manufacturing facility in Oswego, New York. (Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin)
“More and more studies show that cutting down forests to burn for energy production often increases greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “The decision eliminates the incentive for companies to pursue biomass projects that are proven to truly help address climate change.”
But biomass fuel producers like the EPA’s move.
National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said, “NFU emphasizes that carbon policy should be based on the best available science and methodologies. We also strongly support consultation and collaboration with farmers and ranchers as the United States moves forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
Calling the EPA’s decision “the right step,” Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dineen explained how the biogenic sources provision of the deferral will benefit his industry.
“Biogenic CO2 emissions that result from the fermentation of corn or other biomass are, by nature, carbon neutral because those emissions are naturally offset when the biomass removes an equivalent amount of CO2 from the atmosphere via photosynthesis,” said Dineen. “Because biomass is carbon neutral, RFA and other stakeholders expressed concern when EPA failed to exempt biogenic emissions” from the Tailoring Rule.
Until recently, both industry and government have assumed that biomass burning is “carbon-neutral, that is, it adds no net greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
EPA stated on May 26, 2009, “The CO2 emitted from biomass-based fuels combustion does not increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations, assuming the biogenic carbon emitted is offset by the uptake of CO2 resulting from the growth of new biomass.”
But Carr said, “burning trees to produce electricity is often not carbon neutral.” Instead, he said, “Forests in the United States currently sequester more than 10 percent of our annual carbon emissions.”
Biomass Accountability Project President Meg Sheehan said the EPA ruling means the agency will give this “presumed carbon neutrality” a second look, emphasizing that “hard science will be the arbiter of the outcome.” This could mean the biomass energy industry will be subject to more, not less, regulation.
“Recent respected scientific studies indicate that carbon neutrality is not supported by the facts, so the industry is likely to face increased regulation and scrutiny,” Sheehan said, citing a 2010 study commissioned by Massachusetts that showed burning biomass over decades puts more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than burning coal.
“While most people think of windmills and solar panels as the primary renewable energy source, biomass burning currently generates roughly half of the power considered ‘renewable’ in the United States,” she said. “In many cases that includes the burning of whole trees and chemically contaminated waste.”
Still, the biomass industry is encouraged by the EPA deferral decision. Bob Cleaves, president and chief executive of the Biomass Power Association, said, “The agencys statement that certain biomass ‘such as waste materials whose inevitable decomposition will result in greenhouse gas emissions anyway’ confirms what we at BPA have known all along – the use of wood waste materials and agricultural residues for biomass energy have a beneficial carbon impact and should be embraced as a renewable energy source.”