It was just last month that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it was putting off a decision on biomass plant emissions from this month until April 2012. This alone was a nice win for the burgeoning biomass industry, whose existence has been threatened by the proposed new rules. Under the proposed rules, biomass plant emissions would have been treated just like emissions from traditional, non-renewable sources, such as coal.
Still, the future of the biomass industry was uncertain — but now, the EPA has made a stunning turnaround. This week the EPA announced it would delay any decision on biomass emissions for three years, and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said the decision could be the first step toward giving biomass plants a permanent exemption because of their carbon neutrality.
The news was welcomed by biomass advocates.
Dave Tenny, President and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO), applauded the move as a “critical step” toward recognizing the full carbon benefits of biomass as a form of renewable energy.
Mr Tenny said: “The three-year moratorium is an appropriate response to NAFO’s request. It will allow the EPA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) 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.”
Growth Energy, an ethanol lobbying group:
“This is a good first step. The proposed GHG tailoring rule — as initially finalized by EPA to include biogenic sources of GHG’s — would have imposed an unnecessary and financial burden on dozens of ethanol plants that otherwise would not have been subjected to requirements.
“Science shows that the domestic ethanol industry significantly enhances our nation’s environmental well-being by reducing harmful emissions from vehicles on the road. We applaud EPA for recognizing this important contribution and deferring the rule until a more thorough analysis of how biogenic emissions should be treated is complete.”
Environmental groups were very unhappy.
Biomass critics question the wisdom of treating wood burning as green power.
Simply assuming that forest biomass is “carbon neutral” — as global and national standards do now — could lead to a spike in greenhouse gas emissions from wood burning, they say, and defeat efforts to quickly contain global warming.
Franz A. Matzner of the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a statement that he appreciated the EPA recognizing that not all biomass has the same carbon footprint.
“But we can’t afford to wait three years to make sure our forests aren’t being plowed under (with) more, not less, carbon pollution dumped in the air,” Matzner said.
“The EPA has caved in to months of political pressure from the timber and biomass industries and their allies in Congress. Sadly, the result will be an increase in greenhouse pollution, not a decrease,” said Center for Biological Diversity Senior Attorney Kevin Bundy. “There is no scientific or legal justification for treating carbon pollution from burning trees differently from other kinds of carbon pollution. Carbon dioxide is carbon dioxide — the climate can’t tell the difference.”
The EPA’s decision is great news that should be taken with at least some caution. Yes, it appears that the Obama administration understands the concerns of the biomass and timber industries and has sided with them for now. But the political winds change quickly. Some have suggested this most recent change of heart has something to do with the Republicans just taking control of the House, and control of Congress is up to voters every two years. So it will be important to stay vigilant and continue to demonstrate why biomass is a critical part of our country’s renewable energy future.