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Biomass Backlash: Rules Pose Threat to Energy Bonanza
Both federal and state regulators and some scientists are raising concerns about the ecological benefits of wood biomass as EPA refuses to give wood biomass a blanket exemption.

By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 11/1/2010

Over the last few years, wood and agriculture biomass had become the darling of the regulatory and business communities as leaders sought renewable answers to the country's energy problems. But all that could change soon as some in the scientific community have challenged the ecological benefits of wood biomass, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers regulating the carbon dioxide released from burning biomass just as it does coal or fossil fuels.

The Obama administration seems to be sending mixed signals. On one hand, the President has supported biomass through agriculture incentives, research grants and tax breaks designed to boost biomass energy production. And yet, the EPA has recently decided to subject emissions from biomass facilities to the same regulation as fossil fuel emissions under the Clean Air Act.

Under the final Prevention of Significant Discharge (PSD) Tailoring rule issued by the EPA in May, biomass emissions will be included when calculating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The PSD Tailoring rule is used to define what stationary sources will be subject to emission controls and regulations beginning in January 2011.

The EPA said that exclusions for biomass sources could not be justified, as comments against including biomass did not provide information that demonstrated that an overwhelming permitting burden would still exist.

Objections to the decision have come from many in the forest products industry and Congress amid concern that the inclusion of biomass in calculating GHG emissions for regulation could discourage the responsible development and utilization of renewable biomass, cost jobs in rural economies, and breaks from previous precedent and the internationally-recognized carbon neutrality of biomass.

The one bright spot for the forest products industry is that the EPA has reserved the right to provide exclusions for biomass at a later time.

Federal regulators are not the only ones taking pot shots at the green credentials of wood and agriculture biomass. Some scientists and environmental groups are taking up the cause too. A recent study commissioned by the state of Maine has raised concerns about the effectiveness of wood biomass to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially in the short term.

By using only selected parts of a recent study, biomass opponents have made it sound like it would be an ecological crime to replace energy produced from fossil fuels with biomass produced energy. Initial news stories touted the headline, Wood Biomass Worse than Coal! These stories were based on a partial analysis of the study.

The six-month study, conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Science for the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, analyzed the implications that shifting energy production from fossil fuels to forest biomass would have on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The study states that using sustainably harvested forest biomass to replace oil heat would likely begin to yield benefits in greenhouse gas emissions reduction in as little as five years, but electricity from biomass compares unfavorably with fossil fuels, including coal. However, this statement only applies when looking at the short-term savings, which results in what the study has termed a carbon debt. What is overlooked by those who claim this as proof that biomass is not carbon neutral is that ecological issues are seldom measured in five or 10 years. They are measured in decades at the very least, and more often by their effect over 50 to 100 years or more. When looked at in this time frame, biomass more than measures up to fossil fuels, in the study and in reality.

Manomet realized that the results of the study were being used out of context, and issued a follow-up statement on the misuse of the information. The complete study can be downloaded at www.manomet.org.

One commonly used press headline has been "Wood Worse than Coal for GHG Emissions or For the Environment". "This is an inaccurate interpretation of our findings, which paint a much more complex picture," said the Manomet statement. While burning wood does emit more GHGs initially than fossil fuels, these emissions are removed from the atmosphere as harvested forests re-grow.

One of the biggest issues that may come out of the study is biomass being overlooked as a viable option for states trying to meet emission reduction deadlines. In light of the study, officials from Massachusetts are already reconsidering the place of biomass in the state's renewable energy portfolio. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources recently unveiled the draft of a new biomass power rule that proposes to regulate the assignment of renewable power certificates to wood burning incinerators.

Even if wood biomass has a better environmental payoff in the long run, biomass energy could be blackballed by those whose main concern is meeting a legislative deadline, not doing what is best for the environment. There are many environmental and economical factors to consider besides just GHG. For example, using wood biomass reduces environmental risk associated with fossil fuels production, such as the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Also, wood is a renewable resource whereas coal and fossil fuels are not.

Policy makers must also consider the various ways that different materials store CO2. Wood debris will release much or all of its CO2 in this lifetimes whether it disintegrates by weather or is burned by fire. By contrast, coal locks up its CO2 until it is mined out of the ground and then burned. This means that much of the CO2 in wood biomass will be released regardless of human activity. It makes sense to harness this renewable energy resource given these factors.

It is clear from recent moves by the EPA that the Obama administration plans to put wood biomass under the microscope, especially for wood material obtained by cutting down trees to use directly in energy production. The full impact of these moves is yet to be determined, but they could put a damper on the recent flurry of activity related to wood biomass. Although wood energy projects can be a competitor for the pallet and packaging industry when it comes to raw materials, it also can be another market for wood waste. Wood energy could throw a lifeline to many sawmills and loggers that are teetering on the edge of extinction. And in this way, wood energy could help improve the overall supply infrastructure in the long run.

It is time for the forest products industry to muster the troops and tell the President and Congress that wood is truly good when it comes to renewable energy.

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