A Carbon Accounting System for the Future

There are many adages about money, accounting and risk among the farm community: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Pennies turn into dollars. Neither a borrower nor a lender be. A penny saved is a penny earned, and, riches have wings,” for example.

Making sure the federal accounting system for biogenic carbon emissions—ensuring that it is an accurate system, and taking into scientific account the unique features of biomass in the carbon cycle is front and center for over100agriculture, forestry and energy organizations.

Led by a core group of 25 x ’25 partners, these organizations came together to raise the issue of carbon accounting for biomass, asking in a letter to John Podesta, Counselor to President Obama to seek the release of the draft EPA policy on biomass carbon accounting in order to secure its rightful place in our nation’s energy portfolio. EPA is currently finalizing the CO2 accounting framework the agency will use to assess biomass-derived fuels and their net atmospheric contribution of CO2 related to their growth, harvest and use. Given the fact that EPA expects states to use the framework as a resource in developing their own CCA section 111 (d) plans, it is imperative that this framework be based on sound science.

The goal of the organizations is to educate and advise the administration on the unique nature of biomass in the carbon cycle. Bioenergy accounting and policy must recognize that fossil carbon, once mined and combusted, is an irreversible addition of ancient carbon to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the combustion of biomass returns an equal and opposite quantity of previously sequestered carbon dioxide to the atmosphere which supports the growth of a new cycle of biomass resources.

You see, in a sense, the maxim “Riches have wings” is about accounting—for if money is like a bird with wings—it can fly away if you are not a careful accountant. Accounting for inputs, land, personnel and a myriad of other details on a farm, or in any other business for that matter is critical to the success of the business today, and tomorrow.

Unfortunately, federal policy has created significant uncertainty for the future of biomass energy and bio-manufacturing; because in its July 2010 rulemaking, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) treated biomass energy carbon emissions identically to fossil fuel emissions under its regulation governing greenhouse gas permits for stationary sources (the “Tailoring Rule”).

Following a significant response from the biomass community, including a letter from 113 noted scientists affirming the carbon benefits of biomass energy and bioproducts, EPA took corrective action by committing to complete a carbon accounting framework for biomass energy by July 21, 2014.

But today, a full four years later, the organizations pointed out, the timing and the content of the framework are unknown. Until the framework is completed, the uncertainty surrounding biomass will continue with negative repercussions for both federal and state policies, including President Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

There is much scientific research being done that supports the requests of the organizations on the sign-on letter:

Clay, et al. looked at the corn-based ethanol carbon footprint, a calculation affected by many factors including the soil’s carbon sequestration potential—both short-term and long-term. Analyzing over 95,000 soil samples collected from 1985 to 2012, the team found that independent soil organic carbon assessments support the hypothesis that many surface soil in South Dakota become soil sinks when planted to corn.

Other research teams like the one led by Dr. Ho-Young Kwon have found ways to improve lifecycle carbon accounting (biomass accounting) under different corn cropping patterns used by farmers.

Dr. Rattan Lal, at The Ohio State University, directs the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center. A professor of soil science, he looks at environmental soil physics, and, soils under climate change conditions. He’s found the technical sink capacity of U.S. soils to be 0.288 Pg C per year. If the soils are managed optimally, and the accounting framework assesses both carbon emissions and the sink capacity in a sound manner, there is a tremendous potential for biomass and bio-products.

“Soil is more than just an economic or an environmental concern; political stability, global peace and human well-being depend on healthy soils. Thus, soil resources must be used, improved, restored and never ever taken for granted. Healthy soil is the foundation for healthy people, peace and prosperity,” says Lal.

Collectively, the work of these scientists is important in creating a case for EPA to improve upon the previous proposed carbon accounting framework, illustrating with accurate scientific data–the benefits of biomass and biofuels.

Otherwise left in draft form, inaccuracies in the data could unfairly influence or change the debate over federal policies that encourage the development of biofuels, biopower and bio-products in an oil-dominated market; stymieing the clean energy industry from reaching its full potential.

Riches have wings. Carbon emissions can occur, as can carbon sequestration. Agriculture and forestry have a tremendous land area of biomass to account for. It’s a case of getting the accounting system correct that will affect the “bottom line”—the future of biomass energy and bio-manufacturing.

Learn more about biogenic carbon accounting:

1) Modeling state-level soil carbon emission factors under various scenarios for direct land use change associated with United States biofuel feedstock production, Ho-Young Kwon, Steffen Mueller, Jennifer B. Dunn, and Michelle M. Wander.

2) Corn Yields and No-Tillage Affects Carbon Sequestration and Carbon Footprints

David E. Clay, Jiyul Chang, Sharon A. Clay, James Stone, Ronald H. Gelderman,

Gregg C. Carlson, Kurtis Reitsma, Marcus Jones, Larry Janssen, and Thomas Schumacher

3) Managing Soils and Ecosystems for Mitigating Anthropogenic Carbon Emissions and Advancing Global Food Security, Rattan Lal.

4) Carbon Emissions from Farm Operations, R. Lal

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