Future regulatory actions issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will treat biomass from managed forests as carbon neutral when used for energy production at stationary sources, an agency policy statement declares.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who revealed the policy statement on April 23 during a meeting with Georgia forestry leaders, also said the agency will be assessing options for incorporating non-forest biomass as carbon neutral into future actions.
According to the policy statement, provisions in the recently enacted omnibus spending bill, Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2018, direct the EPA, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Agriculture to establish 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 policy statement, however, also stems directly from comments filed in response to President Trump’s June 2017 Executive Order 13777 (Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda).
The agency said that “many forest and forest products industry stakeholders provided comments about uncertainty related to the treatment of forest biomass used for energy in EPA programs.” Those comments, it added, claimed “regulatory uncertainty concerning biogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the use of forest biomass for energy has made planning future investments riskier for these industries and forest communities, hindering growth of the U.S. bioeconomy.”
Use of biomass from managed forests can “bolster domestic energy production, provide jobs to rural communities, and promote environmental stewardship by improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and helping to ensure our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere,” the EPA said.
Contentions about whether woody biomass is carbon neutral have grown more heated over the last decade. As more policy frameworks across the world classify the combustion of wood for power and heat generation as renewable energy, the sector has burgeoned, benefitting from financial and regulatory support reserved for renewables.
One assertion from supporters is that woody biomass is part of a natural cycle in which, over time, forest growth balances carbon dioxide emitted by combustion of wood in the presence oxygen. Critics , which include environmentalists, think tanks, and scientists, refute this claim.
Chatham House, an independent London-based policy institute, in a report last year noted: “In fact, since in general woody biomass is less energy dense than fossil fuels, and contains higher quantities of moisture and less hydrogen, at the point of combustion burning wood for energy usually emits more greenhouse gases per unit of energy produced than fossil fuels. The volume of emissions per unit of energy actually delivered in real-world situations will also depend on the efficiency of the technology in which the fuel is burnt; dedicated biomass plants tend to have lower efficiencies than fossil fuel plants depending on the age and size of the unit.”
The EPA’s policy statement backs supporting arguments, noting that U.S. forests have historically and continue to serve as a “net sink of carbon.” In 2015, the forest sector offset about 11.2% of gross U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, it says. It also suggests, citing “draft EPA analysis,” that use of various biomass feedstocks for energy at stationary sources can result in “negligible net contribution to atmospheric concentrations of CO2 depending on factors related to feedstock characteristics, production and consumption, and alternative uses.”
However, it also adds that the agency’s technical work on a framework to assess net atmospheric contribution of biogenic CO2 emissions from biomass feedstocks used by stationary sources for energy production, “has not to date resulted in a workable, applied approach.” The technical work, which was begun in July 2011 as the Obama administration established thresholds for greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources, is under an ongoing peer review by the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. The board typically has about 45 members, but the Trump administration revamped it to include more industry representation, ousting scientists who received past EPA research grants for “conflicts of interest.” According to the Scientific American, the board had not met in six months as of March 6.
For the biomass power industry, at least, the EPA’s policy statement poses a relief from years of regulatory uncertainty. The Biomass Power Association (BPA), a trade association whose 40 members in 22 states own or operate more than half the U.S. biomass power fleet, noted regulatory uncertainty has pervaded “despite the abundant scientific evidence of the carbon benefits of using biomass fuel to generate power.”
The BPA, which has sought scientific consensus on the issue, in May 2017 published a study conducted by two professors that found emissions from a biomass power facility using forest residue-based fuel are 115% lower than those of a natural gas facility over one year.
“In recognizing the carbon benefits of biomass and its role in healthy forest management, the federal government joins every state with a Renewable Portfolio Standard, as well as many foreign governments that use biomass to reduce carbon emissions,” it said.
—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)