A decision late last week by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington marks a critical juncture in the future of the biomass power industry. The court vacated a three-year delay put in place by EPA in 2011 in its implementation of that portion of its “tailoring rule” covering biomass.
The rule sets the requirements for certain stationary sources to obtain a Clean Air Act permit for their carbon emissions. The rule would for the first time regulate carbon emissions from forest bioenergy production the same as fossil fuel emissions. The rule “tailored” its program by limiting those facilities required to obtain a permit to power plants, refineries and other large industrial plants, while exempting smaller sources like farms, restaurants, schools and other facilities. EPA delayed its implementation of the rule for biogenic emissions for three years, until 2014, for further study.
While the court decision may accelerate the process for implementing the rule for biogenic carbon emissions, it does not prevent the agency from demanding and evaluating the best science in determining how to most appropriately regulate emissions from biomass facilities. EPA must continue the steps needed to adapt the rule in a way that fully accounts for the emissions benefits that are provided by biomass.
The use of woody biomass to help meet America’s energy needs has long been shown to increase the nation’s forestland base (60 percent is privately owned) and improve the environmental services that land provides, including carbon sequestration.
Unfortunately, there are critics of the biomass power industry, as there have been critics of virtually every beneficial technology developed in history, who reflect what seems to be a deep and long-running misunderstanding of how landowners are not only meeting the needs of existing and new markets for energy and wood products, but doing it sustainably and in an environmentally responsible way.
Critics paint the woody biomass sector as being populated by forestland owners who are simply cutting down forests and burning whole trees to generate electricity. It’s a portrayal that is contrary to the sustainable management practices and initiatives broadly pursued by forest owners. And it’s an alarmist view that can easily be exploited for political traction in Washington by opponents, whether they are traditional, fossil-fuel-based energy interests seeking to protect market share, or environmentalists who simply don’t understand how biomass production works.
EPA will be under pressure from those who hold these alarmist views and their allies in Congress, but it is imperative that the agency not put politics before policy.
A landmark paper published in 2011 in the journal Carbon Management examines forest management, wood use and carbon dioxide. Co-authors from the University of Washington, Mid Sweden University and U.S. Forest Service identified numerous opportunities to use wood in ways that will displace products that cause a one-way flow of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions to the atmosphere, contributing to the risk of global warming.
Sustainably managed forests are essentially carbon neutral, providing an equal, two-way flow of carbon dioxide: the gas that trees absorb while growing eventually goes back to the atmosphere when a tree falls and decays, or burns in a wildfire, or goes into the construction of a wood cabinet that eventually goes into a landfill and rots.
But to move forests above carbon neutrality and position them to actually reduce carbon emissions involves growing wood as fast as possible, harvesting before tree growth begins to taper off and using the wood in place of products that are most fossil-fuel intensive, including using woody biomass to produce power in place of fossil fuels.
It should come as no surprise that carbon dioxide emissions from biomass power are merely 4 percent of emissions from coal power. U.S. forests offset nearly 15 percent of all U.S. carbon emissions each year, making the sector a huge contributor to the mitigation of a climate change resulting from increased carbon in the atmosphere.
Amendments to the tailoring rule that must now be undertaken by EPA must allow owners to sustainably use their forestlands in ways that keeps them viable and maintains the carbon benefits they provide.