NY RGGI draft policy excludes most forest biomass

By Anna Austin
Posted June 15, 2010, at 2:42 p.m. CST

In accordance with its membership in the Northeast's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has released a draft policy that explains what constitutes as sustainably harvested forest biomass in New York, and its restrictions are causing a stir amongst the state's biomass power supporters as it restricts a large portion of forest biomass.

Ten northeastern states are part of the RGGI, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2009, and serves to reduce global warming pollution from power plants through implementation of a carbon dioxide cap-and-trade system. RGGI caps the overall level of CO2 emissions allowed from power plants in the region starting in 2009 and continuing through 2014, then reduces emissions 2.5 percent annually over the next four years to achieve a 10 percent reduction by 2019.

RGGI rules consider sustainably harvested biomass as carbon neutral when it is converted into electricity, allowing power producers to exclude those emissions from their GHG reduction obligations. However, it is up to each individual state to form its own definition of what constitutes as "sustainably harvested" biomass.

According to the New York Biomass Energy Alliance Director Dan Conable, the standard proposed by the DEC appears to be one of the most restrictive put forward by any government organization to date, mainly due to a new permanence criterion that requires proof that forest biomass-including mill waste and construction and demolition debris-originated in forests which are under a permanent easement or other legal arrangement guaranteeing that the land will remain in forest for at least 100 years.

Conable and the NYBEA, a coalition of individuals, businesses, and organizations advocating biomass as a renewable energy source, are urging the DEC to withdraw the proposal, since nearly all of the forest biomass available in New York comes directly or indirectly from the selective cutting of private forests, or from urban and other wood waste, rather than land conversion. In a recent letter to the DEC, the NYBEA points out that by assuming the exceptional situation [land conversion] has occurred unless proven otherwise, the draft rule will treat a very large proportion of currently available wood forest biomass as the equivalent of coal or even worse, from the RGGI perspective. And while there are large areas of former paper company and other lands in the Adirondack region that are under state-held conservation easements that permit planned harvests, such arrangements are very uncommon in other parts of the state.

The NYBEA also alleges that unlike the biomass guideline development process for the state's renewable portfolio standard, which is currently set at 30 percent by 2015, there does not appear to have been a systematic outreach to industry members or organizations in the formulation of the policy. The group is suggesting that the DEC adopt the biomass guidelines established in the RPS, which would include the materials excluded in the DEC's draft, and also that the draft finalization be influenced by a public rulemaking process.

The DEC is currently accepting public input on the draft policy until 5 p.m. on June 18. It can be accessed at http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/65141.html, and comments may be submitted to DAR12@gw.dec.state.ny.us.