EPA releases Clean Power Plan, uncertainty for biomass remains

By Anna Simet | August 03, 2015

The U.S. EPA has released the final Clean Power Plan rules, which contain some key changes from the original rule, as well as vague language related to using certain kinds of biomass fuel as a carbon reduction method.

The proposed rule, which aimed to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent in 2030 when compared to 2005 emissions, was released in June 2014. It calls on each state to craft its own plan based on policy and resources of its choosing, and is designed to provide flexibility in meeting goals set by the EPA, which vary by state.

Slightly raising the average carbon pollution reduction goal, the final rule requires existing power plants to reduce carbon pollution by an average of 32 percent by 2030, a 9 percent target increase from the proposed 30 percent.

Addressing the compliance timeline, one of the biggest complaints following release of the proposed rule, EPA granted states a two-year extension to submit plans, if needed. By September 2016, states will need to submit either a final plan or an initial submittal with a request for an extension. States requesting an extension will have until September 2018 to submit final plans either alone or in cooperation with other states.

The final rule also includes several measures to provide more flexibility to states and utilities, including streamlined opportunities for states to include proven strategies like trading and demand-side energy efficiency in their plans, and allows states to develop “trading ready” plans to “opt in” to an emission credit trading market with other states taking parallel approaches without the need for interstate agreements. All low-carbon electricity generation technologies, including renewables, energy efficiency, natural gas, nuclear and carbon capture and storage, can play a role in state plans.

While the proposed rule suggested biomass power may play an important role in achieving carbon reduction goals, the final rule has seemingly continued the trend of uncertainty when it comes to the EPA’s stance on biomass’s carbon benefits.

The proposed rule made several specific references to biomass, noting that sustainable forestry and agriculture can improve resiliency to climate change, be part of a national strategy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and contribute to climate change mitigation by acting as a sink for carbon. “The plant growth associated with producing many of the biomass-derived fuels can, to varying degrees for different biomass feedstocks, sequester carbon from the atmosphere. For example, America’s forests currently play a critical role in addressing carbon pollution, removing nearly 12 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year. As a result, broadly speaking, burning biomass-derived fuels for energy recovery can yield climate benefits as compared to burning conventional fossil fuels,” said the EPA in the proposed rule. “We anticipate that states likely will consider biomass-derived fuels in energy production as a way to mitigate the CO2 emissions attributed to the energy sector and include them as part of their plans to meet the emission reduction requirements of this rule and we think it is important to define a clear path for states to do so.”

Also within the proposed rule, EPA also referenced its draft accounting framework for biogenic carbon emissions, and said the framework is expected to provide important information regarding the scientific basis for assessing biomass-derived fuels and their net atmospheric contribution of CO2 related to the growth, harvest and use. “This information should assist both states and the EPA in assessing the impact of the use of biomass fuels in reaching emission reduction goals in the energy sector under state plans to comply with the requirements in the emission guidelines.”

However, the framework has not yet been released, and the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board working on its crafting still have two meetings scheduled over the next month. A timeline for release of the framework has not been released.

After a preliminary review of the rule, Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association, said  that on its face, the plan generally indicates guidance from the November 2014 memo issued by Acting Administrator Janet McCabe, but only generally, because a closer reading suggests there are a number of regulatory uncertainties, delays and continued involvement by the SAB biogenic carbon framework. “That makes the outcome of this less than certain,” he said.

There are two aspects of the rule that BPA is particularly concerned with, according to Cleaves, one of which is the 111D rule. “EPA is saying they generally acknowledge the CO2 and climate policy benefits of waste-derived biogenic feedstocks, certain  forest and ag-derived feedstocks, based on the conclusion supported by a variety of technical studies…They also say, sustainability-derived ag and forest biomass feedstocks may be acceptable as qualified biomass in a state plan, but go on to say they will be subject to analysis or demonstration that the state can adequately demonstrate that such feedstocks or feedstock categories appropriately control increases of CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and can adequately monitor and  verify feedstock sources related to sustainability practices.”

The rules also say state plans must specify how biogenic CO2 emissions will be monitored and reported, tracked and audited. “I think we’re generally pleased with the approach EPA is taking in terms of saying there are certain types of feedstocks the agency believes has benefits to the climate,  what we’re concerned about is the regulatory uncertainly and costs to implement this rule for an industry that doesn’t have resources of oil and gas sector.”

Cleaves added that, in regard to the federal implementation plan, it appears EPA is taking further comment on developing a preapproved list on qualified biomass feedstocks. “We thought today’s announcement would mean conclusion of final rule subject to litigation and final implementation, but it appears this is not the end of the road…we have more comment periods and more regulatory uncertainty ahead.

When asked when BPA suspects the EPA SAB biogenic framework might be ready, Cleaves told Biomass Magazine that the feeling has been, following the McCabe memo in November, that “continued work, while important, had really taken a backseat to policy decisions made by administration. Now, if you read final rule, it appears EPA’s and SAB’s continued work on the framework will continue to have a role in how EPA approves of these state plans, and ultimately, what the federal implementation plan looks like. Given the continued importance of EPA and SAB, I think they need to get the job done pretty quickly, because the train is leaving the station.”