EPA's BACT guidance confirms biomass climate change role

By Kris Bevill | November 10, 2010

On Nov. 10, the U.S. EPA issued guidance for developing best available control technologies (BACT) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at industrial facilities. The announcement was welcomed by biomass proponents who say it confirms that biomass has a role in limiting the impacts of climate change.

"The guidance announced today by the EPA is an important first step in fully realizing the abundant benefits of biomass power to our nation's power supply,” said Biomass Power Association President Bob Cleaves. “The Biomass Power Association is gratified that the EPA recognized the unique attributes of biomass as a form of energy, and the significant environmental and economic benefits this energy source can offer. We look forward to working with the agency as it moves forward with its implementation of this guidance and other rules pertaining to biomass."

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack also commented on EPA’s statement. "EPA’s release today of guidance to the states on greenhouse gas permitting takes a meaningful step forward in recognizing the potential role that energy from biomass can play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in a news release. “Under the guidance, EPA signals that states may be able to consider the use of biomass energy as a 'best available control technology for GHG.' Further, EPA notes that, in early January, it will provide further guidance to states regarding biomass and will determine this spring whether additional rulemaking related to biomass energy is necessary.”

Vilsack went on to talk about how the use of wood, switchgrass and other agricultural biomass could benefit rural economies, and said that USDA will continue to work with the EPA to make sure that GHG benefits of biomass energy are properly accounted for in energy and climate policies.

The guidance can be used by affected entities and state permitters to assist in determining preferred GHG emission-reduction methods at a facility-level, according to the agency. BACT should be determined on a case-by-case basis, however, and therefore the EPA stressed that its guidance should not be viewed as a rule but rather as basic information. During a conference call, Assistant Administrator Gina McCarthy said the issuance of broad guidance is “business as usual for the BACT process” and should be familiar to state permitters as well as industry participants.

Certain entities affected by the EPA’s tailoring rule, which allows the agency to regulate industrial GHG emissions, will be required to begin using BACT on Jan. 2. Between January and July, facilities that are already subject to Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting requirements for other pollutants and are undergoing activities that will increase their GHG emissions by at least 75,000 tons of CO2 equivalent annually will be required to determine BACT for GHG emissions. The EPA estimates that only the largest sources of pollutants, such as large power plants, cement manufacturing facilities and oil refineries, will be participants of the tailoring rule in this timeframe. Beginning in July, the rule expands to include all facilities emitting more than 100,000 tons per year of CO2e. This category could include nearly all biomass facilities in the country as a result of an EPA decision made earlier this year to include biogenic emissions—emissions that occur as a result of the combustion or decomposition of biological materials—when determining the facility’s GHG emission levels.

According to EPA spokeswoman Cathy Milbourn, the EPA is still evaluating whether biomass-based emissions should be included in GHG emissions calculations. No deadline has been set for a final decision on the matter. However, in its BACT guidance, the EPA states that biomass could be considered BACT in some instances, perhaps indicating that the agency will opt to not include biogenic emissions in GHG calculations. During the guidance announcement, McCarthy said the EPA understands that biomass can be part of an overall strategy to reduce emissions from fossil fuels, adding that the agency will provide additional guidance in January related to biomass use.

The EPA has established a website (www.epa.gov/nsr/ghgpermitting) to house its BACT guidance documentation. White papers on control technologies for specific industries are stored on the site as well as contact information for the agency’s regional representatives and other background information.