EPA tailoring rule worries biomass industry

By Anna Austin
Posted May 18, 2010, at 3:16 p.m. CST

The biomass power industry was unpleasantly surprised with the release of the U.S. EPA's final Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule, which does not exempt biomass power producers from greenhouse gas (GHG) permitting requirements despite past EPA affirmations that biomass is carbon neutral, and requires the same GHG reporting obligations as fossil fuel consumers.

Because the EPA did not explicitly raise the issue of biogenic carbon in their proposed tailoring rule, the agency determined that they could not make a decision regarding the treatment of biogenic carbon in the final rule. This is despite receiving a number of comments requesting that the agency exempt emissions from biogenic activities or biomass combustion or oxidation activities, including solid waste landfills, waste-to-energy projects, fermentation processes, combustion of renewable fuels, ethanol, biodiesel and other alternative energy production that use biomass feedstocks. At the same time some commenters opposed the exemption of biogenic/biomass activities, the EPA said, claiming a lack of a valid scientific basis for treating these GHG emissions differently than other GHG emissions and that it should not be assumed that all biomass combustion is carbon neutral.

While the EPA said it did not address the issue of exemptions for biomass combustion or biogenic emissions, the agency said it is mindful of the role that biomass or biogenic fuels and feedstocks could play in reducing anthropogenic GHG emissions. The decision, the EPA added, is not final and does not foreclose its ability to provide this type of exclusion at a later time when it has additional information about overwhelming permitting burdens due to biomass sources, or to provide another type of exclusion or other treatment based on some other rationale. "Although we do not take a final position here, we believe that some commenters' observations about a different treatment of biomass combustion warrant further exploration as a possible rationale," the EPA said. "…we plan to seek further comment on how we might address emissions of biogenic carbon dioxide under the PSD and title V programs through a future action, such as a separate Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking."

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack issued some brief statements on the EPA's decision, assuring that as the [GHG permitting] process moves forward, the USDA will work with the EPA to ensure that rules designed to reduce the buildup of GHGs in the atmosphere also encourage the development and utilization of biomass energy resources and avoid unnecessary regulatory impediments and permitting requirements.

Despite the EPA expressing intentions to revisit the issue, those relevant to the biomass power industry remain disappointed. American Forest & Paper Association President and CEO Donna Harman said the rule treats biomass fuels identically to fossil fuels, in effect undermining the administration's support for renewable energy policy in this country. "The forest products industry is proud of its voluntary reductions in GHGs and our increasing reliance on domestically grown, renewable and carbon neutral biomass to power our mills-all of which are important for a sustainable future," she said.

David P. Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, pointed out that the U.S. has increased the amount of trees by nearly 50 percent over the past 50 years. "… our nation stores more carbon in its forests than it releases from them," he said. "That is why energy from forest biomass does not increase carbon in the atmosphere." Tenny also said that regulating biomass energy the same as fossil fuels would be a significant shift in federal policy and a powerful disincentive to use biomass to address U.S. renewable energy and climate needs. "The economic impacts on forest owners, mills using biomass energy and rural jobs would be significant, and the resulting devaluation of private forests could increasingly force this land into more economically competitive alternative uses with far fewer GHG mitigation benefits," he said.

Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves emphasized that biomass power emissions add no new carbon to the atmosphere, and said they should not be regulated by the EPA. "Biomass power generates electricity from waste wood and debris on the forest floor already naturally emitting carbon and methane gas," he said. "The biomass electricity generating process only emits biogenic carbon-carbon that already exists in the atmospheric cycle. In many cases, biomass power actually reduces greenhouse gases by eliminating the harmful methane gas that would otherwise be emitted during decomposition."
Cleaves added that emissions from fossil fuels are fundamentally different and significantly more harmful than emissions from biomass power, and that equating biomass emissions with fossil fuel emissions ignores the fact that carbon from fossil fuels has been buried for thousands of years deep in the Earth, and burning those fossil fuels to generate electricity introduces massive amounts of new carbon into the atmosphere. "BPA is encouraged; however, by the EPA's recognition of the important role that biomass power plays in reducing greenhouse gases," he said. "Acknowledging that biomass emissions are not the same as fossil fuel emissions is a significant step towards forming policies that expand the use of clean, renewable biomass power and improve the environment."