MA moves to require good biomass, protect forests

Yesterday, Governor Patrick of Massachusetts took a groundbreaking step to promote renewable power by requiring that only low carbon wood and other plant material be used in power plants using biomass as a fuel. This first of its kind policy recognizes that biomass can be good for the environment or very bad depending on the source. The rules still need to be approved by the state legislature, but if they are they will help protect New England forests while also reducing carbon pollution.

The new rules would establish requirements for any biomass used to produce electricity under Massachusetts' Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). To get the basics on biomass, check out our factsheet.

Here is the quick summary of what Governor Patrick has proposed.  The Governor's rules have three main features, which together make for a very robust policy:

  • First, he would place restrictions on timber harvests that limit “Eligible Biomass Woody Fuels” to residues (tops, crooks, branches), thinning in special cases, and defined forest salvage.  These restrictions are combined with a  limit on the weight of Eligible Biomass Woody Fuel removed from a site as a percent of the total harvest weight (ranging from 0% to 40%, depending on soil type);
  • Next, he would require that facilities using biomass provide analysis of the lifecycle greenhouse gas impacts of that biomass and demonstrate emissions reductions of at least 50 percent over 20 years;
  • Finally, he would put in place efficiency thresholds to qualify for Renewable Electricity Credits (RECs). Under this new rule, the overall efficiency of a biomass generation facility would have to be 40 percent to qualify for one-half REC per MWh, increasing linearly to a full credit at an overall efficiency of 60% or above. (RECs are used for trading and showing compliance under the RPS.)

Taken as a whole, these regulations will greatly limit the ability of the power industry to carry out whole-tree timber harvests for the purposes of fueling biomass facilities, and will limit those facilities largely to efficient combined heat and power (CHP) units or units with comparable performance. See this letter from last fall that NRDC and a number of local groups submitted in support of these regulations for more background.

This stands in stark contrast to the approach the EPA has proposed to take on biomass. As my colleague Sasha and I have written about (here, here, and here), EPA is proposing to ignore for three years all carbon pollution from burning any kind of biomass, regardless of whether it clearly increases carbon pollution, is carbon neutral, or somewhere in between. NRDC will be submitting comments on EPA's proposed delay and you can take action too to tell the Agency to pay attention to the science, protect our forests, and treat pollution as pollution.

Massachusetts’ bold step yesterday proves that the science is there to tell the difference between burning whole trees and other forms of biomass that result in more carbon pollution than coal and using perennial grasses and other forms of biomass that can actually reduce carbon emissions. Massachusetts also shows that we can write practical rules that guide the market to better biomass, protect our forests and reduce carbon pollution.

The rules were shepherded by Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Richard K. Sullivan Jr., his predecessor Ian Bowles, and DOER Commissioner Mark Sylvia. The Governor and his team deserve our thanks. In addition, the regional environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation, Environment Northeast and the Partnership for Policy Integrity, as well as local advocates like Meg Sheehan also deserve tremendous credit for pushing the state to first acknowledge the problem and then address it. I know some of them would like stricter rules, but they have done our forests—and really all of us—a great service. Now we need the 35 other states with RPS policies and the EPA to follow Massachusetts' lead.