As EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt faces mounting questions around potential ethics violations and flagrant spending while in office, earlier this week, the Administrator announced that EPA had declared biomass as carbon neutral. It is an odd move for an administrator who has made it his mission to roll back environmental regulations while also claiming that there is no link between climate change and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  But despite the climate double-speak, Pruitt’s move on biogenic carbon comes at the behest of the biomass and forestry industries, which have long sought an end to their regulatory purgatory at the EPA.   

A back and forth on the question of biomass utilization and carbon has been going on nearly a decade at the agency. In 2011, EPA tasked the independent Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) with finalizing key concepts for emissions associated with the use of biomass feedstocks to produce electricity (including wastes from forestry, agriculture, organics, manure, landfills, and waste water treatment plants). The SAB's concept for the Framework was to establish a factor for carbon emissions associated with the entire lifecycle of biomass feedstocks, including the growth, harvest, and processing of the biomass.  While the media and public’s attention has focused on the use of woody biomass (small trees, wood chips, wood wastes etc.), the decision would have potentially affect the entire biomass supply chain. 

However, since the waning days of the Obama administration, the issue of biomass carbon has been at an impasse at the EPA, with the EPA independent Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) coming to a loggerhead on the issue at meetings in both 2016 and 2017 on this issue. With Pruitt pulling back on the time-tested approach of using independent scientists to weigh in on complicated issues across the agency, the SAB has become, unfortunately, increasingly irrelevant at Pruitt’s EPA. 

Over the past 18 months the issue of biomass and carbon neutrality has largely fallen from the public eye.  Which is why Pruitt’s February declaration that EPA would focus on “clarifying regulations that were encumbering the [forest products] industry,” was met with mostly puzzlement and questions of ‘why now’?  But quietly, over the past two years the biomass and forest products industries has steadily been creating a path forward for resolution of this issue.  

Under the Obama administration, the forestry industry had stressed the potential carbon benefits of biomass utilization; with Trump, the forest and biomass industry instead seized on the administration’s zest for deregulation and business-friendly policy.  Early into the Trump presidency, when the administration put forth a call for industries to submit their ideas of burdensome regulations to dismantle, the forest and biomass industries responded with – fix the uncertainty around the treatment of forest biomass at EPA. 

Prior to this, industry groups worked with lawmakers from forestry-dominant states to push for harmonization of federal policy on biomass. To that end, Senator Collins (R-ME) first introduced such legislation in 2017, which was later incorporated into 2017 appropriations language and then again in the 2018 appropriations bill.  The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 calls for EPA, the Department of Energy and USDA to harmonize policies on biomass, calling for policies that “reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source, provided that the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest uses.”  

Forestry and biomass groups’ appeals to Pruitt’s business interests appear to have paid off. According to EPA’s determination, the move was necessary because the process at SAB “has not to date resulted in a workable, applied approach for consistently assessing the net atmospheric contribution of biogenic CO2 emissions at stationary sources.” The agency goes on to note that “benefits of providing clarity to stakeholders, and direction from Congress and relevant Executive Orders” motivated the decision.  Lobbying disclosures also reveal that a few key lobbyists for the forest products industry who previously worked with Pruitt in Oklahoma were able to move the needle on the issue, in a way that had not occurred under previous administrators. 

However, while the determination helps clear the path towards greater use of woody biomass for energy, it remains unclear what net effect this will have on the U.S. energy mix.  Solutions from the Land, an agriculture, forestry and conservation group, cheered the decision but note that there are numerous conflicts in no fewer than 14 different federal regulations pertaining to biomass utilization.  

State level policies, to a large extent, decide the level of biomass utilization domestically. For example, Massachusetts’ Renewable Portfolio Standard largely forbids the use of biomass as renewable energy, while Oregon promotes it as a renewable source of energy. In California, the biomass power industry has largely shut-down due to expiring Power Purchase Agreements, despite a great need to address vast amounts of wildfire and agricultural wastes. Currently, the only other method of disposal of these materials is open burning. 

The Clean Power Plan had offered hope to the biomass industry. Under the now defunct Clean Power Plan, states and the EPA had been charting a pathway for states to use biomass as a way to ratchet down emissions.  However, with the administration’s reversal on the rule, along with larger market forces, such as low natural gas prices, biomass power is  a less attractive energy option than even a few years ago.  

Despite these headwinds to the biomass industry, private forest owners appear happy with the change,  particularly in the pine plantation heavy Southeastern United States, which produces lumber for the housing industry, pulp for paper, and increasingly, biomass that is largely destined for European power plants. According to Wanda Barrs, a Georgia forest owner who hosted Pruitt for the recent announcement, “Our forests clean the air we breathe, filter the water we drink, provide healthy homes for all kinds of wildlife, and create jobs for people within our communities … However, we can’t keep our forests just because we love all they provide. Like any other sustainable business, the forests we manage, which benefit everyone, must provide a competitive economic return.” 

For additional background information on this issue, check out EESI articles related to this issue: 

2017: Despite Biomass Provisions in Omnibus, Biomass Woes Far From Over
2016: Biomass Provision in Bipartisan Energy Bill Touches Environmental Flash Point
2014: EPA’s Biogenic Carbon Rules Positive, but Not Out of the Woods Yet

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