During a visit to New Hampshire to meet with forestry industry representatives, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his intention to make a clear and consistent determination on the carbon neutrality of biomass.
In a Feb. 13 letter sent to New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, Pruitt explained the complicated history of biomass and the regulatory challenges the EPA has encountered in trying to provide certainty for the forestry industry. Specifically, the agency's Science Advisory Board since 2011 has been trying to define whether the production, processing and use of biomass materials at stationary sources for energy is carbon neutral, a process that is still ongoing.
Pruitt said he heard plenty of feedback during a recent comment period on regulatory reform from parties who felt the EPA had "failed to take proper account of the reality that energy derived from biomass may in appropriate circumstances be recognized as carbon neutral." Commenters also objected to the EPA's treatment of biogenic carbon emissions in Clean Air Act permitting decisions and the agency's procurement recommendations for wood and lumber products.
In the letter, Pruitt said the EPA was working with the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Department of Agriculture "with the focused goal of establishing a mechanism for federal cooperation and consistency on the use of biomass, including forest-derived biomass, for energy." The agency, for its part, has been looking to develop a "range of options" consistent with a carbon-neutral policy for biomass from forests and other lands and sectors.
"Unquestionably, by providing certainty for the treatment of biomass throughout the agency's permitting decisions, the use of biomass energy will be bolstered," Pruitt said, adding that this action would benefit the forestry industry, environment and further the Trump administration's goal of energy dominance.
The Biomass Power Association and others have argued that the fuel source is carbon neutral, since forests absorb carbon as they grow, and when burned for power, wood material releases the same carbon it absorbs. The process then begins again, creating a cycle of growth, combustion and regrowth. However, some environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, have argued against a broad carbon neutrality designation.
Biomass Power Association Executive Director Carrie Annand said the issue of carbon neutrality has "dragged on unnecessarily," leaving biomass generators in limbo. She does not see Pruitt's memo as a significant shift in policy for the EPA, as Obama administration officials also supported affirming biomass as carbon neutral.
David Doniger, senior strategic director of the NRDC's Climate and Clean Energy program, said Pruitt's letter was vague and did not detail how he intends to resolve the issue. With respect to the Obama administration, Doniger said the EPA at the time took a more nuanced approach to biomass by approving the use of waste products but also clearly stating that cutting down forests would not be acceptable.
Congress in its 2017 omnibus spending package included a policy rider that recognized the carbon neutrality of biomass and urged the EPA to do the same but the EPA has yet to officially do so, Annand said. Doniger said the policy rider is only effective for one year and it "does not distinguish between the benign and malevolent" forms of biomass like the EPA did under the Obama administration.
The EPA's Science Advisory Board continues to examine the carbon neutrality issue, but Annand said Pruitt does not have to wait for that work to finish. The administrator could make his own judgment absent the results from the agency's science advisors.
Annand said an official declaration of carbon neutrality would help provide certainty to biomass generators but the issue is much larger than the EPA's policy. Biomass power plants, like fossil fuel generators, are also being impacted by the low cost of wind and solar generation, which have created low power prices. She added that a carbon neutral designation "is not going to fix the markets." She instead views the carbon neutrality issue as a start to broader reform needed to boost biomass. To truly aid the industry, Annand said a price on carbon, or renewable energy credits, or other policy might be necessary.