2 op-eds, 2 views of future of biomass, only 1 is right

Two Boston Globe op-eds Wednesday offer divergent appraisals of EPA’s decision last week to defer regulating carbon dioxide emissions from the biomass industry for three years. The first by Mary Booth and Richard Wiles discusses just how damaging this decision is for the environment and especially the climate, because it will encourage power plants burning whole trees for electricity. The second, by Bob Cleaves of the Biomass Power Association, claims that biomass power is only about turning forestry and agricultural wastes into clean energy.

Two quite different visions:  whole trees vs. wastes.  That’s the core of the debate about what type of biomass an expanded industry will use, and how much of that biomass can be used while still protecting the forests we love and the climate we depend upon.

The forest products industry continuously pushes the myth that all biomass is carbon neutral. But Cleaves and the Biomass Power Association have acknowledged that not all biomass is created equal. In a September 15th letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that the Biomass Power Association cosigned with NRDC, Cleaves urged the EPA to use the best available science to distinguish between different sources of biomass, recognizing that:

“…the net carbon released and stored when biomass is used for energy varies depending on the types of biomass, ecosystems, regions, and land management practices involved. Our organizations recognize that not all biomass has the same carbon footprint. Converting unutilized waste products from sustainably managed timber plantations, for example, has a fundamentally different carbon cycle than harvesting merchantable timber from natural forests. These examples demonstrate that burning biomass can produce a range of carbon footprints.”

The science is clear. The carbon footprints of biofuels range from carbon negative to higher than the dirtiest fossil fuels, and this makes EPA’s delay both dangerous and inconsistent with the best available science.

However, Cleaves’ take on EPA’s delay turns on what he thinks the industry will be burning: all wastes all the time. For me this is at least as dangerous a myth as the myth of carbon neutrality. Real wastes may have low or even negative carbon emissions, but as Booth and Wiles point out, that’s not what new power plants are going to be burning.

As their study for the Environmental Working Group makes clear, many assessments of waste biomass supply ignore key social and environmental constraints and result in misleadingly high supply estimates. The reality is that U.S. demand for biomass will quickly and greatly surpass our sustainable supply of waste biomass if we don’t limit the policy drivers of that growth and put safeguards in place to protect our forests.

In his State of the Union speech this week, President Obama called for an aggressive increase in the use of renewables through a “clean energy” standard. If biomass is included in such a standard, we must have safeguards at least as strong as those in the Clean Air Act’s Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) for transportation fuel.  These require reductions in GHG emissions compared to fossil fuels and protect our most sensitive and threatened landscapes. Congress must be limited and targeted in what types of biomass it encourages industry to burn.

EPA intends its announced delay as only a time-out. The agency says it will use these three years to work out a scientifically sound system of differentiating amongst different sources of biomass and including biomass carbon emissions in its determinations of which new or expanded power plants need construction permits and must employ best available control technologies to limit GHG emissions.  But the time-out itself could encourage a rush to using bad biomass resources—such as burning whole trees in new power plants.  We need EPA to protect our air from fossil fuel pollution. But if EPA doesn’t put some interim safeguards in place, the delay could create a significant incentive to burn more of the most damaging kinds of biomass, resulting in just as much climate pollution if not more.

It is not realistic to pretend that industry will use only waste biomass as it expands.  Without safeguards and oversight to keep growth sustainable and guide markets towards truly low-carbon biomass, Booth and Wiles correctly warn that “expanding biomass power means burning trees, and fueling the more than 200 proposed biomass facilities and coal plants that plan to burn wood will require increased forest cutting on a potentially massive scale.”

As we discussed here, we’re glad EPA continues to recognize that not all sources of biomass are created equal.  We’re equally glad EPA has affirmed that it will follow the science on biomass carbon accounting. But it’s time for EPA to recognize that industry’s appetite for biomass has already started to create a sucking sound in our forests. EPA should be careful to structure its delay in a way that faces that reality.

Our forests aren’t fuel. They’re our future.