Cutting down trees and burning them to make electricity is not a climate solution, and, thankfully, Congress took an important step toward recognizing that this week. Lawmakers in the House of Representatives eliminated a long-running—and ambiguous—provision in a spending bill that the Environmental Protection Agency inappropriately interpreted to mean it must recognize all so-called biomass energy as carbon neutral.
The fight is not over yet, as the industry will fight hard to re-insert this dangerous “rider” into the Interior-EPA appropriations bill as its advances in the House and Senate. Congress must reject this effort, and the action of the House committee is a key step in the right direction.
The established science shows that burning wood for electricity emits carbon emissions on par with that of fossil fuels. Now the research from the EPA’s own science advisors is debunking “carbon neutrality.” A March report from the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board rejects the notion as “inconsistent with the underlying science.” They underscored that not all biomass is created equal—different feedstocks have different carbon impacts—and assuming zero-carbon across the board as the EPA proposes is erroneous.
Congress’s efforts to legislate carbon neutrality in the past appear to have already emboldened the EPA to advance the Trump administration’s anti-climate policies. In April 2018, former Administrator Scott Pruitt released a Statement of Agency Policy, finding that all forest biomass is carbon neutral, citing the congressional biomass rider. His statement short circuits the EPA’s science-based process intended to determine the extent of any carbon benefits. Trump’s draft Dirty Power Plan replacement to the Obama Clean Power Plan formalizes the Pruitt statement. Under the plan, coal plants that co-fire with biomass might be able to count their biomass emissions as zero. And in January, Administrator Andrew Wheeler proposed a rulemaking absurdly arguing that biomass combustion—with all of its damaging pollution—is a “best available control technology” under Clean Air Act permitting requirements. This could apply to large industrial facilities, such as wood pellet manufacturers as well as coal plants that co-fire with biomass.
The Trump administration appears to be ignoring a dire warning in a letter from nearly 800 scientists including winners of the Nobel Prize and the US Medal of Science and lead authors of multiple IPCC reports who write “using wood deliberately harvested for burning will increase carbon in the atmosphere and warming for decades to centuries.” A congressional rider that continues to promote carbon neutrality contradicts this established science and will set back our efforts to address climate change in the short time we have to achieve true emissions reductions
So, it was a good day when the House committee stood up against renewing this bad provision and helped thwart the Trump EPA anti-climate agenda.