U.S. Federal Government Pauses to Scrutinize Biomass Power
Many industries are complaining of regulatory uncertainty these days, and the troubled biomass power industry has now suffered a blow that could impact a decade or more of planning and development. As the U.S. EPA announced today that it will embark upon a three-year study of the carbon impacts of burning biomass for electricity, the beleaguered industry officially moves onto uncertain ground. Environmental groups are hoping that ground is icy cold (http://epa.gov/nsr/actions.html#jan11). Industry groups had lobbied extensively last year to avoid such regulation and scrutiny.
Burning biomass shares the same status and access to subsidies and tax incentives as wind and solar power in many states. Over 40 states have renewable portfolios mandating that utilities sell customers “green energy,” and none of them count the carbon dioxide emissions from biomass (http://www.dsireusa.org/). While most people think of windmills and solar panels as the primary renewable energy source, biomass burning currently generates roughly half of the power considered ‘renewable’ in the United States. In many cases that includes the burning of whole trees and chemically contaminated waste.
Until recently, the assumption of both industry and government had been that biomass burning is “carbon-neutral” – that is, it adds no net greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. EPA has now ruled that this presumed carbon neutrality deserves a second look, emphasizing that hard science will be the arbiter of the outcome. Recent respected scientific studies indicate that carbon neutrality is not supported by the facts, so the industry is likely to face increased regulation and scrutiny.
A 2010 study commissioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts demonstrated that burning biomass over decades puts more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than burning coal (http://www.manomet.org/node/322 ). Massachusetts thus announced in July 2010 that it would put stricter conditions on biomass under the renewable portfolio standard. Also, a comprehensive study published by the Environmental Working Group, “Clearcut Disaster: Carbon Loophole Threatens U.S. Forests,” demonstrated that biomass power increases atmospheric carbon dioxide, while calling for government accounting. (http://www.ewg.org/clearcut-disaster)
According to Biomass Accountability Project spokesperson Meg Sheehan, “EPA has sound scientific grounds for challenging the conventional and scientifically unsupported view of biomass as carbon-neutral. We trust that the agency is setting a new course that will close the ‘biomass loophole.’ Governments must stop ignoring the carbon dioxide emissions from biomass.” The head of the Biomass Power Association, Bob Cleaves, has said that regulation of biomass through the tailoring rule would effectively stop the industry in its tracks.