Small Government, Big Changes to Biomass Regulations

By Bob Cleaves | February 21, 2012

In the age of abundant calls for smaller government and consolidated agencies, you’d think that government agencies would be heeding the calls to scale back and cut unnecessary regulations that would cost significant time and funding for very little gain.

The U.S. EPA is proposing to do just the opposite. The agency has refused to classify the waste wood used to generate biomass energy as a fuel, its historical classification. Instead, EPA may treat the material as a waste in the same category of material that goes to a landfill.

This seemingly small change has surprisingly large implications for our industry. It would render unusable several types of traditionally accepted materials used for biomass power generation. Materials like urban waste wood, such as pallets after they are used for construction, would be redirected from biomass facilities to landfills. This would cause the twin consequences of clogging up the precious little space in landfills, and the release of methane gas, a greenhouse gas that’s 25 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

Using these materials in the generation of biomass energy, however, allows for the capture of harmful gases along with the support of hundreds of jobs and the production of thousands of megawatts of renewable energy. This is why many states, including Maine, New York and California, recognize urban waste wood and other similar materials as fuel instead of waste, allowing the biomass industry to use them to their full potential.

If the EPA were to codify this regulation, besides limiting the materials available to the biomass industry, the agency would be required to devote untold hundreds of hours of manpower to monitor and enforce these rules. 

The EPA is, by any measurement, currently stretched thin. Administrator Lisa Jackson has repeatedly acknowledged that the agency does not have the resources available to properly monitor the process of hydraulic fracturing if the EPA finds it contaminates drinking water. “There is no EPA setup that allows us to oversee each and every well that’s drilled,” she said during a February teleconference hosted by the American Sustainable Business Council, before going on to say that the agency will continue to focus on the “big things.”

The re-regulation of certain types of wood waste as waste instead of fuel is a small thing that will reap very little in terms of improved air or water quality, at the big cost of removing a sizable portion of fuel used by the biomass industry.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association