Carbon Neutrality of Woody Biomass Set to Become Federal Law

The $1.1-trillion budget resolution headed toward passage by Congress this week contains a provision that has long been sought by many renewable energy advocates, including 25x’25 Alliance members, particularly those in the bioenergy sector. The language in the measure, which sets government spending for the remainder of this fiscal year and avoids a government shutdown, deems biomass “carbon neutral,” a definition that clarifies and gives direction to federal policy and multiple agencies.

The language would at long last recognize that sustainably produced and managed biomass can offer valuable clean energy contributions and important carbon sequestration services to mitigate climate change. Furthermore, the measure would finally bring harmony to what has been dysfunctional federal policy garbled by 13 different definitions of biomass in various laws and regulations.

The actual language from the provision sounds much like the arguments that have long been made to policy makers in support of biomass citing it as a viable, economically and environmentally beneficial source of power and transportation fuel.

Section 428 of the bill says that in order to “support the key role that forests in the United States can play in addressing the energy needs of the United States, the Secretary of Energy, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency shall, consistent with their missions, jointly ensure that federal policy relating to forest bioenergy is (both) consistent across all federal departments and agencies; and recognizes the full benefits of the use of forest biomass for energy, conservation, and responsible forest management.”

The measure also calls for the establishment of “clear and simple policies for the use of forest biomass as an energy solution, including policies that reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source, provided the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest use.”

The measure could encourage significant private investment throughout the forest biomass supply chain, including in working forests, harvesting operations, forest improvement operations, forest bioenergy production, and wood products and paper manufacturing.

One key aspect of the provision is the emphatic support of sustainable forest management to improve forest health, of which extracting woody biomass is a valuable tool. And the bill recognizes the initiative taken by some states to produce and use forest biomass sustainably.

The arguments for this legislation go back nearly a decade. In 2010, the 25×25 Alliance and the Federal Interagency Woody Biomass Working Group convened a Wood-to-Energy Workgroup, consisting of representatives from landowner groups, professional forestry organizations, environmental organizations, traditional forest industries, emerging renewable energy industries and academia. Through a series of forums, the work group explored wood demand and supply, sustainability of forest resources, carbon and climate change, and related policies. In June of 2011, the Alliance issued the National Wood-to-Energy Roadmap that summarized the key findings and recommendations from the forums – information that remains relevant today.

Succinctly put, the roadmap demonstrates that far from decreasing the extent of America’s 755 million acres of forestland, the focused use of wood to help meet America’s energy needs would not only increase the extent of the nation’s forest land base, but would also improve the environmental services that the land provides. It would enhance economic development in rural communities; lower the carbon footprint of America’s energy supply; restore the health, vitality and proper functioning of many of the nation’s public lands; ensure the future of America’s private timberlands by “keeping forests as forests”; and provide the raw materials needed by America’s forest products industry, all while supplying a growing bio-economy.

We await the successful approval of the federal budget with this key language, and then congratulations will be in order for the lawmakers and the wide range of stakeholders in the forest and bioenergy sectors that brought about this long-desired conclusion to a debate that has lasted far too long. The new statute will set the stage for what could be a welcome resurgence of an energy source that will no longer be entangled in a web of contradictory and self-defeating policies.

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