What is the EPA up to?


This week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued guidelines for how states should interpret its new rules for greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this year those proposed new rules were announced and if passed, they would have killed the burgeoning biomass industry because they treated biomass plants just like coal and other fossil fuels.

The new guidelines released this week at least have promise. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is saying some nice things:

Secretary Vilsack said: “EPA’s release today of guidance to the states on greenhouse gas permitting takes a meaningful step forward in recognizing the potential role that energy from biomass can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Under the EPA guidance, states can consider the use of biomass energy as a “best available control technology” for greenhouse gases.

The EPA is expected to issue more guidance to states in early January on biomass, and will decide whether more rulemaking is needed regarding biomass energy this spring.

Secretary Vilsack emphasized the benefits for rural economies in using wood, switchgrass or other agricultural products in biomass energy facilities.

He said: “Markets for woody biomass could also prove to be vitally important in allowing the US Forest Service and others to restore forests to mitigate the impacts of the bark beetle epidemic in the West and to reduce the potential for catastrophic fire in our forests.”

But what does all this really mean? The EPA’s proposed new rules would be onerous for the biomass industry, and it’s far too early to tell whether the guidelines released this week will make any difference.

Washington Lt. Gov. Brad Owen put it nicely in a recent op-ed in the Tacoma News Tribune. Owen came out against the EPA’s proposed rules and cited the widespread support for biomass among state lawmakers, Washington’s congressional delegation and Gov. Christine Gregoire. The Legislature this year also unanimously passed a bill that “encourages both a ready and ecologically sustainable supply of biomass from our state forests, a new source of revenue for our rural economies and a great mechanism to take better care of our forests.”

More from Owen’s op-ed:

We cannot afford to make choices that will increase the already significant pressure on our forest landowners to convert their lands to non-forest uses. Our national policies, especially in these rough economic times, must be set to create and maintain jobs.

…The only person who can reverse the plan is EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. Let’s hope she will take a look at the science and policy precedents — as well as the inevitable impacts this will have on rural jobs and green energy innovation —and keep us moving forward on a green path of energy development.

Business columnist Bill Virgin this week wrote a column in the Tacoma News Tribune praising biomass and the other innovations in Washington’s timber industry.

The days of building giant integrated complexes, the sort that once characterized lumber and paper mill towns, are likely gone, but that’s not the same thing as saying the industry will be gone too. In their place will be smaller, technology-intensive mills that squeeze every usable fiber out of whatever wood they work with, in the form of lumber, paper or electricity. Even big existing mills will get new leases on life if they can adapt themselves to new processes and products. The more that occurs, the more likely it is that the industry will not only arrest its decline but begin adding companies, factories and jobs.

Much of this innovation and bright future for the timber industry will not come to pass, however, if the EPA’s rules become reality without significant changes.