U.S. Senate Must Reject Forest Biomass Rider

Last week the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies funding bill that includes language that would do lasting damage to our forests and climate, and would undermine the EPA’s ability to regulate damaging carbon pollution.

The unrelated policy “rider” attached to the spending bill would give a free pass to the biomass industry to pollute by allowing carbon emissions from power plants burning forest biomass - chipped up branches, limbs, and whole trees - to go unregulated. It would set a dangerous precedent of legislating science by forcing EPA to use fundamentally flawed carbon accounting and would set back our efforts to fight climate change. As the appropriations bill moves to the floor, Senators must reject this and other anti-environmental policy riders.

The rider states: “forest biomass carbon emissions from a facility that combusts forest biomass for energy, do not require regulation, control, or action if…timberland carbon stocks … are stable or increasing” in a region compared to a regional baseline.  

In effect, if a biomass power plant is located in a region where the net forest growth is positive, then the plant is exempt from carbon regulations or controls. This approach is fundamentally flawed because it cannot detect or quantify the carbon emissions from an individual biomass-burning facility, and it does not establish a cause-and-effect between the power plant and the region’s forests. The language is therefore nothing more than an accounting charade; it leaves biomass power plants unaccountable for their pollution.

The EPA’s own Science Advisory Board and many peer-reviewed studies have rejected the approach: 

… forest biomass emissions could be granted an exemption simply because the location of a stationary facility is in an area where forest stocks are increasing. …[it] fails to capture the causal connection between forest biomass growth and harvesting and atmospheric impact, and thus may incorrectly assess net CO2 emissions of a facility’s use of a biogenic feedstock.[1]

Despite the clear rejection of this approach, the authors of the rider insist Congress mandate its use.

Here is a hypothetical example illustrating what could happen if this damaging language is not removed:

  • Assume net forest growth in a region is measured at five units (choose any unit you wish), when a new biomass-burning power plant begins operations.
  • Wood harvesting to fuel that new plant decreases the region’s net forest growth by one unit. That wood is burned in the power plant to generate electricity, releasing all the carbon that had been stored in the wood immediately to the atmosphere. 
  • Forest growth in the region is now four units.

Because four is still a positive number (forest growth is still occurring but at a lower rate) all those carbon emissions from the new plant are simply unregulated.

Giving these emissions a free pass will erode the benefits expected under the Clean Power Plan by treating a polluting source the same as wind or solar. It could also undermine our commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, which are premised on achieving the full potential of our nation’s forests to pull carbon out of the atmosphere. 

Moreover, the rider, and a similar proposal included in a comprehensive energy bill, amount to legislative interference with what should be science-based determinations by the EPA. Sixty-five scientists wrote Congress earlier this year to warn against establishing scientific principles by legislative decree. The EPA’s treatment of bioenergy continues to be informed by the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, and the agency has committed to assess the carbon pollution impacts of bioenergy. Any biomass rider would pre-empt that process and undermine EPA’s authority.

We are already seeing the devastating effects of biomass policies based on bad science in the southeastern U.S., where industrial-scale production and export of wood pellets is growing dramatically. These exports are driven by the demand of European utilities whose use of biomass is supported by generous clean energy subsidies that treat all biomass as "carbon-neutral," an assumption that is scientifically flawed. The Appropriations Committee’s decree risks repeating the perverse mistake made in Europe where utilities are rewarded for using fuels that actually increase carbon emissions, all under the auspices of policies intended to address climate change and support renewable energy. 

Congress should be taking all steps to combat climate change and one of our most potent weapons in that fight is the expansion of our forests.  This rider directly threatens that expansion.  We as a nation can’t afford to do that, especially for an industry that immediately throws all that carbon into the atmosphere.

The Senate must reject biomass riders and similar provisions that provide a free pass on from carbon pollution for the biomass industry. Support for these types of provisions undermines our nation’s efforts to address climate change, mandates flawed science through legislative decree, and undermines the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency.

[1] SAB Review of EPA’s Accounting Framework for Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources, September, 2011. Available at: http://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/0/57B7A4F1987D7F7385257A87007977F6/$File/EPA-SAB-12-011-unsigned.pdf

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