EPA finalizes punt on carbon pollution from biomass

On July 1, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed the final plan giving facilities burning biomass a three-year exemption from Clean Air Act permitting requirements for carbon dioxide emissions while the agency studies the effect of biogenic carbon emissions on climate change. The temporary exemption for biomass means that all biomass—the good, the bad and the ugly—will be treated as zero and won't need preconstruction permits or Title V operating permits. What’s more coal burning plants will be able to mix in a little biomass and claim that they’re using Best Available Control Technology, as is already happening in MI. (See this E&E article if you have a subscription.)

During these three years, EPA plans to conduct a study on biogenic carbon emissions and then employ a Science Advisory Board for input as it crafts final rules for the treatment of biomass. It’s good that this is a temporary exemption, that the rule recognizes that not all sources of biomass are created equal, and that EPA is committed to developing final rules based on sound science. However, there is simply no scientific or administrative basis for treating all biomass as zero carbon emissions. While fossil fuel carbon emissions will—properly—now finally be accounted for, the agency’s decision to ignore biomass carbon emissions for the next three years will distort the marketplace towards greater use of biomass fuel, with a greater toll on our forests.

In the rule, EPA bends over backwards expressing concern about possibly regulating truly low-carbon biomass, but the 3 year punt ignores the science and relatively easy distinctions that EPA should be drawing on now. The lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of some forms of biomass are neutral or close to neutral over a reasonable time period. For example, some biomass feedstocks, such as landfill gas, forest and crop residues that would otherwise be burned, and annual crop residues not needed to preserve soil carbon stocks, have clearly low net emissions within very short periods of time and can reasonably be considered potential low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.

Conversely the science is equally clear that the net carbon emissions from harvesting and burning whole trees and other similar forms of biomass will result in as much if not more emissions than burning coal for decades.

Other types of biomass such as forest residues that would otherwise be left to decay in the forest probably do need to be studied, but facing pressure from the forest biomass industry, EPA has made a bad decision and ignored the science some simple options to narrow its exemption. Permanently exempting some sources and counting others fully would have better protected our deteriorating atmosphere and provided the industry with greater clarity. Now any projects permitted in the next 3 years face the very likely prospect that any future modifications to those permits will require them to count some or all of their biogenic emissions.

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Director, Renewable Energy Policy, Energy & Transportation program

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