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Massachusetts farmers, foresters urge caution in drafting RPS

By Lisa Gibson
One of the biggest challenges facing landowners is how to incentivize hired loggers to cut and utilize 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 the 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 "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 www.manomet.org.

Following the June 10 release of the findings, a public comment period through July 9 was opened. Two days before that comment period was up, however, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs sent a letter to the DOER, requesting swift policy change in light of the findings, which unfortunately studied only forest biomass, not wood waste and other feedstocks the plants will actually use. Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves says 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 letter proposed several changes including the definition of biomass and the enactment of efficiency standards, which Cleaves said has not been done to date in the United States. EEA Secretary Ian Bowles requested final standards be drafted by Oct. 31 and final regulations be put in place by Dec. 31.

"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. "We know biomass energy markets can help our forests' health and improve our rural economies, while producing low-carbon renewable energy."

At the press conference, la Cour and others addressed 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. "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."

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."

The briefing was an opportunity 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."
 

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