Letters support carbon neutrality of biomass, national RES

By Lisa Gibson
Posted July 27, 2010, at 4:49 p.m. CST

In a letter to U.S. House and Senate leaders last week, 114 of the nation's leading environmental scientists express concern over the proposed U.S. EPA's Tailoring Rule equating biogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with fossil fuel emissions. It's "incorrect and will impede the development of renewable biomass energy sources," the letter says.

The carbon dioxide released from the combustion or decay of woody biomass is part of the global cycle of biogenic carbon and does not increase the amount of carbon in circulation, according to the scientists. Equating biogenic carbon emissions with that of fossil fuels is not consistent with good science and could stop the development of new emission-reducing biomass energy facilities, they add. "It could also encourage existing biomass energy facilities to convert to fossil fuel or cease producing renewable energy. This is counter to our country's renewable energy and climate mitigation goals."

The EPA's final Tailoring Rule defines what stationary sources will be subject to greenhouse gas emission controls and regulations during a phase-in process beginning Jan. 2, 2011. Since the May release of the draft, the biomass industry has argued its emissions should not be included in permitting requirements.

"The CO2 released from burning biomass was absorbed as part of the ‘biogenic' carbon cycle where plants absorb CO2 as they grow (through photosynthesis), and release carbon dioxide as they decay or are burned," the scientists' letter states. "This cycle releases no new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is why it is termed ‘carbon neutral.'"Biogenic GHG emissions will occur through tree mortality and decay whether or not the biomass is used as an energy source.

In addition, the scientists argue that biomass power facilities generally contribute to a reduction of GHGs beyond just displacement of fossil fuels, as the use of forest fuels in modern boilers eliminates methane emissions from incomplete oxidation following open burning, landfilling, or decomposing, which occurs in the absence of a higher and better use for the material.

"This letter from top scientists across the country is a great victory for the biomass industry and the 14,000 men and women in this country who are employed by the industry," said Bob Cleaves, President and CEO of the Biomass Power Association. "It vindicates our position that biomass is an essential renewable energy source for the nation."

During a July 27 conference call held to discuss the letter, Cleaves mentioned the controversial Manomet study regarding Massachusetts biomass supply and carbon neutrality. The study outlines a complex debt-then-dividend carbon accounting model, finding biomass is better when replacing fossil fuels in certain applications than others and especially dirty in comparison when replacing natural gas for electricity. The biomass industry has argued several points of disagreement, including the fact that the carbon accounting did not include waste wood, land clearing and other feedstocks used by most biomass plants. "We think this is a timely letter," Cleaves said. "We think it's very important to set the record straight."

Cleaves has also been involved with letters and comments submitted to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., requesting a national renewable electricity standard (RES) be included in his energy bill. The BPA and other organizations collaborated in a letter sent last weekend and Cleaves believes it is possible for the country to enact an RES. "It was actually a pretty historic coming together of environmental groups, renewable trade associations and labor alike," Cleaves said of the letter. "We're definitely working hard." He added that Tom Daschle, former Senate Majority Leader who is now leading the Renewable Energy Coalition, has stated that there are 60 votes in the senate for a federal RES. "I'm hopeful that we can still pull this out, but it's certainly coming down to the wire," Cleaves said

About 30 senate democrats also signed a letter addressed to Reid calling for an RES in his energy bill, asking for a strong standard, not weakened by inclusion of nonrenewable energy sources. "A strong Renewable Electricity Standard should be an integral part of our national energy policy," the letter reads. "We urge you to ensure that we give our country the opportunity to win the clean energy race by including a Renewable Electricity Standard in energy legislation that is considered this summer."