Our forests aren't fuel, but EPA's delay threatens to turn them into just that

Coal-fired power plants are under increasing pressure to clean up, but these are massive facilities with voracious demand for fuel. Many have already started to look at harvesting whole trees to replace some of their coal use, creating a sucking sound in our forests. This type of energy is known as “biomass” and the power companies may call it green, but biomass releases more carbon pollution at the smoke stack per unit of energy and trees are slow to grow back. In other words, at a time when we must urgently reduce our pollution, burning our forests for fuel will take us dangerously in the wrong direction.

To fight back, today NRDC launched a new page on our website. This is the first step in a campaign we're calling "Our Forests Aren't Fuel." We want to spread the word about the hazards of runaway burning of biomass from our forests, and the unfortunately the need is greater than ever. On Monday, EPA made a major misstep in its efforts to protect our air and climate, a misstep that threatens our forests and all who love and depend on them. EPA proposed a 3 year delay in establishing limits for carbon pollution from facilities that burn biomass. Furthermore, the Agency issued guidance recommending that burning biomass--any kind of biomass--can be considered the “best available control technology” or “BACT” for reducing carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases.

The ostensible justification for EPA’s delay is to give the Agency time to study how to establish accurate and practical regulations for biomass pollution, the same reason it cited in an announcement earlier this year. There are plenty of scientific, simple and precautionary accounting rules EPA could adopt, but calling for more study makes for a reasonable sounding excuse.  And the delay wouldn't be so bad in isolation. But the reality is that it’s not in isolation.

As we discussed here, the threat to our forests comes much more from a huge pending increase in demand than from the current biomass industry. If EPA delays, there will be no federal limits in place on burning even the worst sources of biomass such as whole trees. And you can be sure the biomass power industry won’t be taking a similar time-out.

Twenty-nine states have already established mandates for renewable energy that include energy from biomass. President Obama has proposed a federal "Clean Energy Standard" which would likely include at least some forms of burning biomass. And last but not least, EPA is moving ahead with Clean Air Act regulations to protect us from greenhouse gas pollution from burning fossil fuels.

The EPA fossil fuel regulations are the largest new driver for burning biomass. It’s critical that we reduce carbon pollution from fossil fuels, but if we squeeze down on plants burning fossil energy sources like coal and ignore pollution from burning biomass, giving it a free pass under the law, it's like squeezing one end of a balloon--you just push the pollution from one source to another. For a visual demonstration of this balloon analogy and a discussion of why it is absolutely critical that our energy policies appropriately account for biomass carbon, check out this video.

EPA's proposed delay and BACT guidance will add fuel to the fire, so to speak, making biomass look like an EPA-sanctioned free lunch to coal plants and other industrial boilers that should instead be making real investments in cleaning up their pollution.

EPA should change course and at a minimum regulate the emissions from large power plants that can’t prove they're only burning clean and real residues from sustainable agriculture and forestry. And when EPA starts to accept comments on its proposal, we hope you’ll joining us in telling them that our forests aren’t fuel!

In the meantime, check out our new page, there's a slide show that gives you a sense of the urgency of this issue and tools to help you take action today starting with telling Congress that our forests aren't fuel. And please check back regularly too. We'll be adding fact sheets, videos, and when it's time to submit comments to EPA, you'll be able to do that through the site too.