Scott Pruitt suggested yesterday that U.S. forests would offset potential carbon dioxide emissions released by burning wood for energy. But his controversial decision on biomass was rejected by critics as an unscientific step to help the forest industry.
The EPA administrator announced yesterday at a Georgia elementary school that the agency now considers biomass to be carbon neutral for the purposes of regulating emissions from stationary sources, like power plants that burn wood.
The agency went out of its way to note that the decision isn’t based on a scientific determination. Biomass has been at the center of a decadelong debate among scientists over its emissions. The amount of CO2 that’s released changes with the type of wood, or feedstock, that’s cut down. Older trees contain more carbon. The act of burning wood also produces carbon dioxide.
In a six-page policy statement, the agency argued that the nation’s forests are a net carbon sink, offsetting about 11.2 percent of gross U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.
“While there is some uncertainty within the scientific community about whether U.S. forests will remain a net carbon sink over the coming years, recent research shows that under current market and environmental conditions, continued forest land investment and management can allow for continued and even increased U.S. forest carbon stocks in the future,” the agency said.
The document also notes that the carbon neutrality of biomass could be revisited in the future.
Environmental groups aren’t buying the argument that U.S. forests may offset emissions related to biomass development. They maintain that burning biomass releases more carbon at the smokestack than coal to produce the same amount of energy. At the same time, it can take decades for trees to sequester the amount of carbon released by producing biomass energy.
On the other hand, biomass proponents point to the use of forest residues and waste products from milling as sustainable fuel sources and highlight the benefits of properly managed forests.
Sami Yassa, senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Pruitt lacks the ability to guarantee that forests managed for biomass would grow back, because he doesn’t have jurisdiction over them.
He noted that EPA’s Science Advisory Board had found that it was not scientifically valid to assume all feedstocks are carbon neutral, even while the panel could not agree on how to best determine the varying impacts of different feedstocks.
“Pruitt has dismissed basic science in favor of a free pass for his industry buddies. This is the gist of this document. Even the EPA’s document underscores that biomass is not carbon neutral scientifically, but it proposes to treat all biomass as carbon neutral,” said Yassa.
“It’s a pretty nutty idea,” said Bill Snape, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity. “How many forests has the Trump administration protected?”
Instead of investing in new biomass facilities, the country should be focused on wind and solar development, he added.
The agency described its own policy decision as pragmatic by “promoting the environmental and economic benefits of the use of forest biomass for energy at stationary sources, while balancing uncertainty and administrative simplicity when making programmatic decisions.”
Pruitt previewed the new policy earlier this year in a trip to New Hampshire, where he met with representatives from the forestry industry (Climatewire, Feb. 14).
Members of the biomass industry praised EPA for the policy change.
Robert Glowinski, president and CEO of the American Wood Council, noted in a statement that they had been asking for a clarification about biomass’s status as carbon neutral since 2010.
“For years, worldwide climate change and renewable energy policies acknowledged that all sustainably-managed biomass energy was ‘carbon neutral.’ We thank EPA for clearing up ambiguous policies with which the industry has been trying to comply,” he said.
The American Forest and Paper Association also lauded yesterday’s announcement, calling the decision a reflection of long-standing scientific principles.
“We are one of the largest manufacturing sectors in the nation, eager to strengthen the economy and boost U.S. job creation with the support of public policy that levels the playing field with competitors around the globe,” AF&PA President and CEO Donna Harman said in a statement.
“This new EPA policy is an important milestone in implementing the Congressional directive to produce clear and simple policies and acknowledges the scientific record on the carbon neutrality of forest-based, renewable biomass,” she added.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.