[NEWS] Congress Tells EPA Biomass Is Carbon Neutral
– by Brittany Patterson, April 21, 2016, E&E
Two amendments tucked inside the bipartisan energy bill that passed the Senate yesterday are elevating the question of whether biomass is a renewable energy source on par with wind and solar in the eyes of federal policy.
Both measures drew ire from environmental groups and praise from the biomass industry. But even with this newfound attention, some industry analysts said biomass policy remains unclear.
“Whatever effect it does have would take a while, but it could force the issue a bit more,” said Jessie Stolark, a policy associate with the nonprofit Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).
The “Energy Policy Modernization Act,” S. 2012, is the first comprehensive energy bill to pass Congress in nine years. The bill, approved by the Senate in a 85-12 vote, contains updates and guidance on policy ranging from expediting permits for natural gas export facilities to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (Greenwire April, 20).
There were more than 60 amendments, and two that proposed guidance for biomass — the act of burning organic materials like tree trimmings and agricultural waste for power. Getting federal and state agencies to recognize biomass as a carbon-neutral renewable energy source has been a long-standing battle for the industry.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 8 percent of all renewable utility-scale power was generated by burning woody biomass in 2014.
The carbon-neutral amendment
The amendment introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) answered the industry’s prayers. It calls on U.S. EPA as well as the Agriculture and Energy departments to craft a coordinated policy on biomass that reflects “the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy.”
Dave Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, praised the Collins-Klobuchar amendment.
“The overall benefit of this is that it reaffirms the role of biomass as a renewable energy source and part of our overall energy and climate solution,” he said. “A provision like this, if enacted, would provide clarity and consistency, which we’re lacking right now.”
Sarah Dodge-Palmer, vice president of government affairs for the American Wood Council, called the bill “a step in the right direction in getting our country’s public policies aligned to recognize our industry’s unique biomass use as carbon neutral and as part of the sustainable carbon cycle.”
But the idea that biomass is inherently carbon neutral incensed environmental groups.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Friends of the Earth, the Dogwood Alliance and dozens of other environmental groups said they would not back the bipartisan energy package because of the inclusion of the biomass amendments.
“Legislating the carbon neutrality of an emissions-producing technology sets a dangerous precedent for all climate science, in that it attempts to override physical facts with policy declarations,” the letter stated. “The language also sets a dangerous precedent in seeming to give other agencies the authority to effectively veto EPA determinations on matters within its jurisdiction.”
For the last five years, a panel under EPA’s Science Advisory Board has been working through the science on how to account for carbon released from the burning of biomass. Earlier this month, it punted on the issue, choosing instead to send a draft report back to the panel for further consideration (ClimateWire, April 4).
Unlike solar and wind energies, which are limitless in their supply and do not contribute carbon to the atmosphere when generated, biomass releases the carbon contained inside of the organic material when it’s burned. Since it can be regrown, sequestering the carbon out of the atmosphere once more, many see it as a renewable energy source.
When accounting for carbon emissions from burning biomass, the numbers depend significantly on the time frame used to do the calculations as well as where and how the biomass materials are sourced. Critics fear a biomass boom could cause forest clearcutting, for example.
Because of that, the scientific community remains divided about the carbon neutrality of burning woody waste and other organic materials for electricity.