NRDC to EPA: biomass carbon accounting delay is bad for climate and forests

On Tuesday, the EPA held a public hearing on its proposal to defer, for three years, Clean Air Act permitting requirements for carbon dioxide emissions from bioenergy and other biogenic sources. I discussed here and here why EPA’s decision creates an incentive for power plants to shift from burning coal to burning biomass regardless of the actual impact on our climate and threatening our forests. This is the message NRDC delivered at the hearing:

The Clean Air Act is a genuine American success story and one of the most effective tools in U.S. history for protecting public health. It has sharply reduced pollution from automobiles, industrial smokestacks, utility plants, and major sources of toxic chemicals and particulate matter since its passage in 1970. The law has saved tens of thousands of American lives each year by reducing harmful pollutants that cause or contribute to asthma, emphysema, heart disease, and other potentially lethal respiratory ailments. EPA’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide and other climate-changing pollutants will do even more to save American lives and avoid adverse health impacts caused by more killer heat waves, more intense smog, the spread of infectious diseases, and stronger storms, floods, and hurricanes. EPA’s Clean Air Act standards are our best line of defense against this pollution.

The NRDC strongly supports EPA’s authority to enforce Clean Air Act standards to reduce carbon pollution that harms human health and the environment. Congress gave EPA the duty to keep up with developing science and to act when science shows that pollution endangers our health and welfare. In moving forward to reduce dangerous carbon pollution, EPA is doing its job exactly as Congress directed.

New Source Review is an integral part of the Clean Air Act’s carbon pollution safeguards. When a company wants to build or expand a power plant or other big plant that will operate for decades, it is only common sense to take reasonable steps to reduce how much dangerous pollution it will put into the air. So for decades, the Clear Air Act has required that someone—either the state’s environmental agency or the EPA as a last resort—review what the new or expanded plant can reasonably do to reduce its pollution, and put achievable and affordable emission limits into a construction permit. Starting this year, these safeguards apply to carbon pollution too.

We support EPA’s steps, through the Tailoring Rule, to focus the permit review on the biggest sources. But we are deeply troubled by the current proposal to completely ignore the carbon pollution emitted from plants that burn biomass for the next three years. While we support improving methods for accounting for the life-cycle uptake and emissions associated with biomass production and harvesting, there is no scientific basis for a complete pretense for the next three years that carbon emissions are not occurring when sources burn biomass.

It would be one thing if the biomass exemption merely held matters harmless while EPA improved those accounting methods. But the unwarranted exemption of biomass emissions from the calculation of a source’s “potential to emit” introduces a regulatory bias that threatens to accelerate biomass burning in new and expanded plants, particularly biomass of the most problematic kind: the harvest and consumption for fuel of whole trees from the nation’s forests.

There is no scientific justification for ignoring, even on a temporary basis, the biomass-derived carbon emissions that come from the smokestacks of these plants.  Just like coal and other fossil fuels, when trees are burned, the carbon they have accumulated over long periods of time is released. This is carbon that was isolated from the atmosphere before being burned for energy.  Its emission has the same global warming impact as the fossil carbon released when we burn oil or coal. Unlike coal, however, trees will continue to absorb carbon if left alone. Burning trees in today’s power plants not only releases carbon at the stack just like coal or any other fossil fuel, but it also degrades our carbon sinks and foregoes this potential additional sequestration. All in all, cutting and burning forests will result in a net increase in carbon dioxide pollution compared to coal or other fossil fuels for decades and destroy one of our best defenses against global warming.

The Agency’s June 3rd, 2010 Prevention of Significant Deterioration and Title V Greenhouse Gas Tailoring Rule clearly states that “all carbon dioxide counts” towards determining whether a large stationary source of greenhouse gases is “major” and therefore must hold Clean Air Act preconstruction and Title V operating permits for its greenhouse gas emissions, reflecting “best available control technology” (“BACT”). We are therefore seriously concerned about EPA’s recent proposal to exempt all sources of biogenic CO2 emissions from these requirements for a period of 3 years, in order to come up with an accounting system that reflects lifecycle emissions. Despite the fact that there are multiple scientific, simple and precautionary accounting rules EPA could adopt, this decision means that there will be no federal limits on burning the worst sources of biomass during the deferral period. At the same time, EPA’s exemption will create a new, indirect incentive for regulated facilities to shift from burning coal to burning biomass.  Because the supply of truly sustainable, low-carbon forestry wastes is extremely limited, expanding biomass power means burning more whole trees. Our analysis shows that EPA’s deferral could lead to an increase in the demand for wood equal to more than what we currently get from clear cutting.

According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Annual Energy Outlook, biomass energy generation is poised to experience rapid and sustained growth, given known technological and demographic trends, as well as current laws and regulations, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and individual state renewable portfolio standards. Much of this growth comes from increased co-firing of biomass in existing power plants for the purpose of displacing coal—a category of biomass demand that is likely to be met mostly with woody biomass.

EPA’s exemption of biogenic sources of CO2 will perversely drive even greater expansion in woody biomass for the purpose of co-firing with coal, threatening more of our forests and allowing more carbon pollution into our atmosphere. The perverse incentive comes from the fact that while fossil fuel carbon emissions will—properly—now finally be accounted for, biomass carbon emissions will be ignored for the next three years. This will distort the marketplace towards greater use of biomass fuel, with a greater toll on our forests.

This regulatory tilt will operate on top of the variety of incentives for burning woody biomass already in place today, which include many state renewable portfolio standards, benefits found in the 2008 Farm Bill, as well as the weak “maximum available control technology” (“MACT”) standards EPA recently adopted for biomass boilers, which allow them to emit as much or more hazardous air pollution as coal plants. A large portion of the increase in biomass generation, even under business-as-usual, comes from increased co-firing of biomass to displace coal. EPA’s deferral on regulating biogenic carbon would serve to exacerbate these direct and indirect incentives and, if not corrected after the 3-year delay, could add substantially to woody biomass consumption in the power sector, particularly at coal-fired power plants co-firing biomass. 

We support EPA’s recognition that not all sources of biomass are created equal and the agency’s commitment to sorting out their differing contributions to carbon pollution on a scientifically sound basis. But it is not appropriate for the agency to create perverse incentives for indiscriminately burning biomass without safeguards in place to prevent the use of unsustainable biomass sources such as forests. EPA should continue to count all carbon emissions from major emissions sources and require preconstruction and operating permits be held by major source biomass burning facilities that are constructed or modified during the study period. This is critical to ensuring the sound carbon accounting and sustainability standards that will create a bioenergy industry that uses wastes, residues, herbaceous and short rotation woody biomass grown on marginal lands or new cropping systems that produce biomass while preserving food production. Biomass done these ways can contribute to EPA’s goals of reducing pollution and our reliance on fossil fuels like coal. But done wrong, burning biomass will increase carbon dioxide pollution and threaten our forests.  

Instead of giving large power plants a free pass to indiscriminately burn even the most unsustainable forms of biomass, EPA should require plants to demonstrate that co-firing biomass satisfies their legal obligation to implement the “best available control technology” to limit carbon pollution, and that burden of proof should be greater than just showing that they’re burning biomass.  For more information on why we must protect our forests from being turned to fuel and what you can do to help, check out NRDC’s new “Our Forests Aren’t Fuel” page on our website.

About the Authors

Nathanael Greene

Director, Renewable Energy Policy, Energy & Transportation program

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