BCAP comments amass

By Anna Austin
Posted April 14, 2010, at 2:40 p.m. CST

The USDA's Biomass Crop Assistance Program proposed rule comment period expired April 9. Those anxious for the final rule release and/or the current freeze on the program to cease can now only wait for the USDA to sort through the 24,000-plus comment submissions in order to formulate a fair and consensus-driven rule.

When exactly that will be, however, remains unclear. Public Affairs Chief Kenneth Politsch said the USDA hadn't gone through enough comments to project when the rule would be out, though some industry-relevant groups have speculated that it will likely come out later this summer.

The proposed rule was released Feb. 8, and a 60-day time frame was allowed for individuals or groups to weigh in on BCAP by submitting feedback on numerous program elements. Some key provisions in the proposed rule included eliminating the dry tonnage measure and adapting to industry norms, scaling back matching collection, harvest, storage and transport (CHST) payments of certain qualifiers, and seemingly the most debated provision, a prohibition on wood materials that might otherwise be used for higher-value purposes.

The prohibition mainly stemmed from concerns expressed by the composite panel and fiberboard industries, alleging that the CHST payments for certain eligible materials such as saw dust and wood shavings were directly increasing prices and competition for a market that already was established, potentially causing devastating market distortion.

The wording in the proposed rule is as follows, "CCC proposes that vegetative wastes, such as wood waste and wood residues, collected or harvested from both public and private lands should be limited to only those that would not otherwise be used for a higher-value product. More specifically, for materials collected from both public and private lands, CCC is proposing to exclude from matching payment eligibility wood wastes and residues derived from mill residues (i.e. tailings, etc.) or other production processes that create residual byproducts that are typically used as inputs for higher value-added production (i.e. particle board [sic], fiberboard, plywood, or other wood product market."

Many groups have expressed varying opinions. Some strongly support the prohibition, some oppose it and others call for a much clearer explanation. Donna Harman, CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association said AF&PA supports USDA's stated goal of avoiding diversion of materials potentially eligible for the BCAP matching payments from existing value-added production processes already occurring in the marketplace. "Unfortunately, we have serious concerns with USDA's proposed approach to implementation," she said. "If USDA focuses the matching payments component on woody biomass materials without a viable market, it can avoid diversion of materials from existing value-added production processes "

The Biomass Thermal Energy Council commented that BCAP should preserve the program eligibility of vegetative waste materials such as wood wastes and residues, while the Biomass Power Association suggested that saw dust and wood shavings from saw mills be explicitly excluded from the eligible materials list, but that suppliers of the materials be allowed to petition USDA for eligibility where it can be demonstrated that no higher value use currently exists. "This safeguards biomass used by the composite panel facilities but only when there is a demonstration that such materials will actually be put to such use," said BPA President Bob Cleaves. "There are areas of the Pacific Northwest where saw dust and shavings are an important biomass-to-power fuel and where no competing higher-value use currently exists."

The Pellet Fuels Institute disagreed with the tapering of the eligible material definition, commenting that use of the materials in danger of being excluded, as a pellet feedstock, is the highest-value purpose in many areas and should not be excluded in this proposed rule.

Assuming that the USDA will move forward with the motion, the Composite Panel Association suggested a clearer definition of the prohibition proposal, commenting that the terms "wood waste" and "wood residue" are not defined in the proposed rule nor discussed in any legislative history. CPA recommended that it be clearly stated that eligible wood waste and wood residues do not include scraps, saw dust, chips and shavings from saw mills and other wood mill facilities, either in a standalone definition of those terms or in the definitions of renewable biomass.

USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said the agency will be working as quickly as it can to organize and analyze the comments. Meanwhile, a full copy of the BCAP proposed rule can be retrieved at www.fsa.usda.gov.