EPA delays GHG regs for biomass, leaves states to lead again

In an announcement made Wednesday, the EPA said it would defer Clean Air Act permitting requirements for three years for carbon dioxide emissions from biomass-fired and other biogenic sources. EPA made a good decision in deciding to account for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from biomass last year and a bad one yesterday by putting that accounting on hold for so long. I’m glad that EPA has recognized that not all sources of biomass are created equal and committed to sorting out their differing contributions to carbon pollution on a scientifically sound basis.  But three years is a long time to develop a plan that puts the right biomass safeguards in place. What’s more, this punt puts the onus once again on states to regulate biomass in a way that ensures we don’t create a new fleet of power plants grinding up forests and pumping out more carbon pollution.

The forest products industry would have you believe that burning biomass is always carbon neutral and that the industry should be totally exempt from the Clean Air Act. The fact is, however, not all biomass is the same. Cutting and burning a mature forest can releases even more carbon pollution than burning the equivalent amount of coal. And because it takes decades for that forest to grow back, the climate will be worse off for decades to come.  

In her statement, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson acknowledged that some forms of biomass are a threat to the climate when she said “in the coming years we will develop a commonsense approach that protects our environment and encourages the use of clean energy.”

During the three-year period, the agency will seek scientific input from its partners within the federal government and from outside scientists who have relevant expertise. In the meantime, however, there will be no federal limits on burning the worst sources of biomass.  It will fall to states to protect their air and forests.

Massachusetts is on the verge of adopting sound, protective regulations for the treatment of biomass. The state’s regulatory process was jumpstarted following a ballot initiative and the release of a study by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, which concluded that burning trees for power was more damaging to the climate than previously thought. The rules will set protective safeguards for biomass projects seeking to qualify for state incentives, including a requirement that projects provide significant near-term net reductions GHG emissions. Other states should now look to the Bay State’s leadership.

Sound carbon accounting and sustainability standards will create a bioenergy industry that uses wastes, residues, marginal lands and new cropping systems that produce biomass while preserving food production. Biomass done these ways can contribute to our goals of reducing carbon emissions and our reliance on fossil fuels like coal. But done wrong, burning biomass will increase carbon emissions and threaten our forests.  It is critical that our policies reflect the science around biomass carbon accounting and support investment in the 21st century biopower plants that help create jobs and protect our air and forests instead of destroying them. EPA must now create a path for eventually getting biomass emissions treated correctly under the Clean Air Act. In the meantime, the responsibility rests with states like Massachusetts to protect our air and landscapes.