Policy Uncertainties Are Not Insurmountable

“Sustainable forestry and agriculture can improve resiliency to climate change, can contribute to the Administration’s GHG reduction goals by acting as a “sink” for carbon, and be an important part of a national strategy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels,” said Brent Bailey, 25x’25 State Activities Coordinator.

Last week Bailey, represented 25x’25 and the bioenergy sector at a Technical Summit on EPA’s proposed Carbon Pollution Standards (Clean Power Plan) hosted by the Southeast Climate and Energy Network.

But numerous challenges exist in bringing renewable energy online to its full capacity:

“Infrastructure is the number one challenge. We have transmission lines that need to be modernized and expanded to tap into rural sources of electricity,” said Bailey. “To move biofuels we need expanded pipelines, rail, ports and other shipping facilities to move products to urban areas; along with the expansion of blender pumps and an increase in the number of flex-fuel vehicles.”

There needs to be significant public and private investment. But most of all, Bailey adds, “Federal policy has created significant uncertainty for the future of biomass energy.”

Despite renewed attention by the current administration on mitigating climate change and increasing bioenergy opportunities, three policy questions exist that create uncertainty. And while these uncertainties create challenges, 25x’25 leaders and its partners believe that these challenges can be overcome with persistence and a solid, supporting message.

The second challenge, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), can be summarized like this:

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now nine months behind in announcing the final RVO’s (Renewable Volume Obligations), and the proposed RVOs cut nearly 3 billion gallons, including conventional and advanced biofuels, from statutory targets.
  • EPA has extended the 2013 compliance period several times.
  • It appears that the final announcement is anywhere from 30 to 90 days away from completion.

“Broadly speaking, utilizing biofuels for transportation needs can and does yield proven climate benefits as compared to burning conventional fossil fuels,” Bailey said, so it is critical policy area to focus on. “Biofuels also contribute to the economic fortunes of small communities across rural America.”

The third challenge to bioenergy is the definition of renewable biomass. Inconsistent definitions of renewable biomass exist across federal and state agencies, creating confusion.

For example, in the 2008 Farm Bill, USDA was provided a broad definition to support the delivery of biomass feedstocks to energy producers. While with the 2007 Energy Act, the EPA was provided a very narrow definition of biomass that could be utilized.

The implications of differing definitions are very real in the Southeast region. If one were to look at a map of Georgia and the timber land that would qualify as renewable biomass under the USDA definition, its 24 million acres. The map under the 2007 Energy Act renewable biomass definition indicates only 7 and a half million acres that are eligible as an energy feedstock. That’s more than a three-fold difference. To leave those acres out of biomass production has economic consequences, and, concurrently the inability to tap the sustainable energy of those acres.

“We feel that states will want to consider biomass-derived fuels in energy production as a way to offset CO2 emissions attributed to the energy sector. They may want to include them as part of their plans to meet the CO2 emission reduction requirements of EPA’s proposed Carbon Pollution Standards (Clean Power Plan),” adds Bailey. “However, it is important for the 25x’25 Alliance and partners to continue to work toward the application of a broad, yet simple, science-based definition of renewable biomass.”

And the fourth policy creating uncertainty is the pending development of a Biogenic Carbon Accounting Framework. Bailey pointed to the work of 25x’25 and its partners to see that biomass’ unique nature in the carbon cycle is accounted for, and that bioenergy is clearly affirmed as part of our nation’s long-term energy portfolio. A biogenic carbon accounting framework must acknowledge that biomass has a neutral or de minimis impact on atmospheric carbon, use actual data and avoid accounting distortions, be simple to implement and provide maximum flexibility to states.

The 25x’25 Alliance and over 100 agriculture, forestry and energy organizations recently came together to raise the issue of carbon accounting for biomass in a letter to John Podesta, Counselor to President Obama. The group hopes that President Obama will accelerate the release of EPA’s draft policy on biomass carbon accounting, again particularly important to states since EPA expects them to use the framework in developing their own Clean Air Act section 111 (d) compliance plans.

An additional challenge is the continued assault on existing state Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policies across the country. Where the Congress has failed to enact a long-term, comprehensive energy policy for the nation, the states have stepped in to develop innovative policies that help to build domestic markets for clean energy generation and manufacturing.

While the bioenergy community has growing concerns about policy uncertainty from the threats to the RFS and delays in completing the 2014 RVOs, inconsistent definitions of renewable biomass, the lack of a biogenic carbon accounting framework and the pushback on state RPS policies, all hope is not lost.

These uncertainties are not insurmountable. Efforts such as communicating the potential and importance of bioenergy as a climate solution, and the need for agricultural producers and rural areas in particular to be able to harness the economic promise of this energy sector are critical. It’s also important to keep abreast of changes in the regulations and policies, and, to educate lawmakers, and offer public commentary on the appropriate role of bioenergy in our national energy strategy.

If 25x’25 Alliance partners work together to address and remedy these regulatory and policy concerns, we will be able to deliver even cleaner, low-carbon, home-grown energy and maximize the economic rewards to our rural communities.

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