Federal court affirms science as the guide for how EPA must regulate biomass energy

The federal court of appeals in Washington D.C. issued an important decision last week that confirmed the need to follow the science when developing biomass-based energy. The decision once again made clear that not all bioenergy has the same carbon footprint—and some increases climate-disrupting carbon pollution. It is now up to the EPA to follow the science as it goes forward with standards for bioenergy. This is an important step that will help develop cleaner, next generation biomass energy that cuts carbon pollution instead of making the problem worse.  

More specifically, the court rejected an EPA decision to exempt all new power plants that burn biomass and similar sources of “biogenic” carbon emissions from the same pollution control requirements that other large scale facilities have to follow. EPA’s across-the-board waiver treated all biomass as though it were “carbon neutral,” a notion we now know is scientifically indefensible. 

Power plants are America’s largest source of climate pollution and cleaning them up is central to achieving the President’s climate plan and protecting the health of our communities and children. As I discussed here, integral to this effort is making sure biomass is done in a way that demonstrably cuts carbon pollution.

Unfortunately, EPA failed to distinguish between biomass that meets our climate goals and biomass that doesn’t in issuing its waiver, threatening to increase carbon emissions at a time when we urgently need to do just the opposite. Perhaps worst of all, by making it cheaper and easier just to burn trees, the waiver threatened to undercut efforts to develop sustainable, second-generation bioenergy sources that we need.

Like fossil fuels, when trees are burned in power plants, the carbon they have accumulated is released into the atmosphere. However, burning wood for energy far less efficient than fossil fuels, and thus far more carbon polluting per unit of energy.

Cutting down trees for energy production also disrupts vital carbon sinks and impedes ongoing forest carbon sequestration—not just on the forest floor, but also in the soil. Even thinning forests, which biomass boosters like to claim is carbon-free or carbon-beneficial, reduces the carbon that a forest stores for 50 years or longer.

EPA’s biomass exemption also threatened communities—many of them with low income disadvantaged residents—with health impacts by waiving stricter controls on air pollution for some biomass plants.

The good news is we now know it’s perfectly feasible to regulate in a way that distinguishes better and worse forms of biomass. Massachusetts recently showed how to follow the science and build a bioenergy industry that reduces pollution and protects forests. The state’s standard differentiates across different sources of woody biomass, and ensures  any biomass credited under its Renewable Portfolio Standard actually reduces carbon emissions.

EPA’s own Science Advisory Board issued a clear and unequivocal rejection of the idea that biomass can automatically be treated as carbon neutral and underscored the need to distinguish amongst different types of biomass. The Board endorsed an approach similar to the one adopted by Massachusetts to account for the carbon emissions from using whole trees and other long recovery feedstocks as fuel in power plants. The Massachusetts standards are now a model for how other states—and the EPA—should regulate biogenic emissions moving forward. 

EPA has promised to establish scientifically sound rules for the treatment of “good” and “bad” biomass in the Clean Air Act permitting process. Now that its ill-considered blanket exemption has been rejected, it is the time for EPA to propose those rules, engage with all stakeholders, and adopt viable solutions.

Bioenergy has a role to play in our urgent fight against climate change, but real biomass solutions must not increase carbon and air pollution or be established at the expense of our valuable forests or public health. Fortunately, the court’s decision leaves EPA in the driver’s seat to follow the science and come up with an approach that incentivizes truly clean energy, rather than making a blanket exemption for a mixed bag of biomass facilities.