States Divided on Whether Biomass Energy Should be Exempt from GHG Permits

Date: September 24, 2010

Source: News Room

As EPA considers whether to exempt biomass-fueled energy projects from greenhouse gas (GHG) permit requirements, several states are warning that the so-called "tailoring" rule threatens state renewable energy programs and renewable energy development, while Massachusetts and some environmental groups warn that ignoring biomass GHG emissions would exacerbate climate change. The disagreement highlights the challenges EPA faces as it seeks to develop a more nuanced position on biomass permit requirements as part of its first-time GHG standards for large stationary sources.

Initially, the agency considered granting biomass a blanket exemption from its proposed rule to "tailor," or limit, GHG permit requirements to only the largest stationary sources. But, in its final rule issued June 3, EPA revoked the proposed exemption, making biomass GHG emissions subject to the same accounting as fossil fuels for the purposes of issuing GHG permits. That sparked a widespread backlash, including a letter in opposition signed by 62 House members and 37 senators, prompting the agency to issue a "call for information" in July on how to better account for biomass in GHG permits. The agency received nearly 800 responses to its call for information, many from industry worried that it will stifle the renewable energy development and runs counter to Obama Administration policy.

However, Massachusetts, which is developing its own strict biomass power rule designed to limit GHG emissions, is siding with EPA, writing in a Sept. 20 letter, "Thus far, we have concluded that the convention of ignoring biogenic [carbon dioxide] emissions is based on an unfortunate oversimplification of the carbon cycle, and that policies based on this convention have the potential to aggravate climate change over time." On the other hand, Minnesota warns in a Sept. 13 letter that, "The tailoring rule, as it stands, will unnecessarily pull bioenergy and bioprocessing facilities into Clean Air Act permitting, and places the responsibility for complex and expensive permitting on state agencies and permitted facilities." Additionally, Maine says in a Sept. 13 letter, "Maine considers biomass emissions to be carbon neutral for purposes of GHG accounting, particularly when associated with sustainable forestry practices."

At the same time, California in a Sept. 13 letter to EPA says the state is "confident that where appropriate safeguards protect against unsustainable practices, bioenergy can be a 'carbon-neutral,' sustainable energy source. Indeed, California is counting on the substantial use of bioenergy to meet our GHG reduction goals." Wisconsin, meanwhile, says in a Sept. 13 letter that EPA should develop "carbon neutrality and life cycle assessment systems for quantifying the carbon investment needed to produce heat and energy, transport fuels or industrial products and feedstocks."

Meanwhile, the industry Biomass Power Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed joint Sept. 15 comments urging EPA to "use the best available science to establish a full-cycle carbon accounting system that recognizes that the net carbon released and stored when biomass is used for energy varies depending on the types of biomass, ecosystems, regions and land management practices involved. Our organizations recognize that not all biomass has the same carbon footprint."

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