EPA considers biomass carbon neutral (updated)

A 23 April policy statement announced that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will consider all biomass used for energy production carbon neutral.

In what it called a pragmatic approach, the EPA will consider biomass a carbon neutral source of power in future decisions. However, it added that the policy statement ‘does not represent a final agency action’.

“To proactively address congressional directives and stakeholder concerns specific to the use of forest biomass for energy, EPA’s policy in forthcoming regulatory actions will be to treat biogenic CO2 emissions resulting from the combustion of biomass from managed forests at stationary sources for energy production as carbon neutral,” read the statement. It added that the decision will not affect the EPA’s work relating to the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) or the Clean Air Act Title 2.

Increased certainty for biomass investors and jobs for rural communities were among the benefits cited in the statement.

While the document has no legal status, it does indicate the agency’s policy direction. Such statements are made by officials with the authority to speak for the agency as a whole, like the Administrator, as it was in this case.

It was also made clear that the statement does not constitute a scientific determination, nor does it revise or amend any previous determinations. These determinations are analyses from qualified individuals within the agency (including the Board) and independent contractors.

The agency’s framework for assessing net emissions from biomass feedstocks has not been completed, with previous efforts by the agency’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) failing to produce any ‘workable, applied approach’. The SAB did find, however, that it was not ‘scientifically valid’ to assume that all biomass is carbon neutral.

It’s been reported that the activity of the (SAB) has been disrupted, with some on the board accusing the agency of minimising its involvement in EPA decisions. The agency denies this claim and says that the problem stems from paperwork delays to getting new members appointed. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has altered the make-up of the board by increasing industry representation.

Responding to questions about whether the board has reached a quorum and when it will discuss the assessment framework, a spokesperson for the EPA said that new members of the board, (including its Chair) were appointed at the end of 2017 and that they were expected to discuss the framework in the coming months.

Industry has applauded the policy. Carrie Annand, executive director of Biomass Power Association said: “We are greatly pleased at Administrator Pruitt’s announcement that the EPA will treat biomass power as carbon neutral.”

“[O]ur industry has experienced regulatory uncertainty for several years. In recognizing the carbon benefits of biomass and its role in healthy forest management, the federal government joins every state with a Renewable Portfolio Standard, as well as many foreign governments that use biomass to reduce carbon emissions. We thank the Administrator and EPA staffers for their work on this important issue.”

But the scientific debate over carbon emissions from biomass is far from over. John Sterman, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, co-wrote a study published in January questioning the green credentials of biomass for power.

“Asserting by administrative fiat that biofuels are carbon neutral does not make it so, and, worse, encourages policies that may actually worsen climate change.  Proper emissions accounting would count the emissions from all sources of energy, whether coal, gas, solar or wood.  And for wood and other biofuels, offsetting reductions in atmospheric CO2 would be credited only when and if there is net new growth on the lands harvested to supply the biomass.”

The study found that even if the carbon debt from biomass is paid back through new forest growth, the process can take decades. During this time, the emitted CO2 still acts as a greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change. Sterman instead called for “a meaningful price on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions—no matter where and how they arise”.

The National Resources Defence Council said that the statement ‘defies science’ and wrongly conflates biomass with ‘genuinely clean and zero-carbon energy sources’ like wind and solar.

Pruitt has gone against previous scientific determinations made by the EPA under Obama that man-made CO2 is a primary contributor to global warming. Recently, he has received criticism over alleged ethics breaches. So far President Trump has stood by Pruitt, who faced a Congressional hearing 26 April.

The article was updated 09:32 03/05/2018 to following a response from an EPA spokesperson to questions about the agency's policy statements and scientific determinations, and the status of its Scientific Advisory Board.

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