MA farmers, foresters urge caution in drafting RPS

By Lisa Gibson
Posted July 27, 2010, at 2:43 p.m. CST

One of the biggest challenges facing landowners is how to incentivize hired loggers to cut and utilize the low-grade wood to ensure forest health and forest growth, according to Sarah la Cour, director of conservation and planning for W.D. Cowls Inc. Land Co. and member of the Massachusetts Forest Owners Association. La Cour was one of six speakers representing foresters, farmers and labor unions at a media briefing in Holyoke, Mass., July 27, concerned that the state's renewable portfolio standard (RPS) rulemaking process will be driven more by election-year politics than sound, peer-reviewed science.

The briefing came in response to public meetings held in the area by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources regarding the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences biomass study results and potential policy changes in light of its findings. The DOER will use study results to determine whether biomass power will qualify for the state's RPS, but some in the biomass and forestry industries are concerned the process is being rushed without proper evaluation. Without RPS qualification, plants lose a key portion of revenue, making biomass power uneconomic.

The study findings, however, have been misrepresented in mainstream media to imply that biomass energy is dirtier than coal. Those incorrect reports prompted clarification letters from Manomet and plenty of noise in the biomass industry. The study, "Biomass Sustainability and Carbon Policy Study," actually found a complex debt-then-dividend carbon accounting model for biomass, saying burning biomass releases more carbon initially per unit of energy, but that carbon debt is paid off as the forest re-grows and depending on a variety of factors. The study can be seen in its entirety at

Following the June 10 release of the findings, a public comment period was opened, to be closed July 9. Two days before that comment period was up, however, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sent a letter to the DOER, requesting swift policy change in light of the findings, which unfortunately studied only forest biomass, not wood waste, residues and other feedstocks the plants will actually use. Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves assures that when that wood is taken into account, biomass power is undoubtedly carbon neutral. The study itself even acknowledges that waste wood is favorable to fossil fuels in all technologies and warrants further analysis. "The media and the state took a couple pieces out of the study and said [biomass is] worse than coal," la Cour told Biomass Magazine after the briefing.

In the letter to the DOER, Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles wrote, "In light of the Manomet study, we have a deeper understanding that the greenhouse gas impacts of biomass energy are far more complicated than the conventional view that electricity from power plants using biomass harvested from New England biomass forests is carbon neutral. The findings of the Manomet study have changed the policy landscape for biomass energy production derived from wood fuels." The letter goes on to propose several changes including the definition of biomass and the enactment of efficiency standards, which Cleaves said has not been done to date in the U.S. Bowles requests final standards be drafted by Oct. 31 of this year and final regulations be put in place by Dec. 31.

Unjustified, Reactionary Restrictions

"Enacting scientifically unjustified and reactionary restrictions on the sale of and markets for low-grade wood on private forested land, will make private forests unaffordable and more importantly, ecologically unhealthy," la Cour said in her statement Tuesday. "We know biomass energy markets can help our forests' health and improve our rural economies, while producing low-carbon renewable energy."

La Cour and her fellow speakers: Wayne Lehman Jr., organizer and field representative for Laborers Union Local 596; Jim Kelly, president of the Massachusetts Association of Professional Foresters; Brad Mitchell, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation; Ken Lynds, president of the Massachusetts Wood Producers Association; and Gregory Cox, of the Massachusetts Forest Landowners Association, addressed the press Tuesday about job creation, ecosystem benefits for low-grade waste wood and other issues related to biomass energy from wood. "Our concern is additional restrictions on how we regulate our forests," la Cour said of foresters. "The biggest issue is keeping ourselves viable." She added that while the byproduct from forests currently has no market, it would keep more loggers in business. "We believe that biomass will help, not harm Massachusetts private forest resources," la Cour said. She went on to say that the idea that landowners will suddenly clear cut or in any way over-cut their forests to produce biomass fuel "defies logic and basic economics."

The media event grew from Citizens for a Clean Economy, a campaign to educate voters of the negative impacts of a ballot initiative that would have unreasonably limited biomass power plant emissions. The group pushing for the initiative has taken it off the table in light of the Manomet study findings and subsequent actions.

A June 18 press release from the Forest Landowners Association reads, "The Forest Landowners Association questioned the DOER's conclusions and cautioned against public policy decisions being made on the basis of agency's narrow interpretations of the Manomet study." It's not the only agency to get tangled in the fray, as the BPA, American Council on Renewable Energy, National Council for Air and Stream Improvement Inc., and others weighed in via press releases, letters to the Commonwealth or DOER, or both. A letter to the Commonwealth from the British Consulate General's Office directs the agency to a European Union study also released June 10, that found most types of biomass energy applications reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 55 percent to 98 percent compared with fossil fuels, even when transported long distances.

The idea of Tuesday's event was to ask the DOER and Commonwealth to take a step back and allow more time to draft such important regulations. "Regulations are a big deal," la Cour emphasized. "People are going to disagree on this, but let's take a little time."4005