On March 5, the Washington Post published an editorial entitled ‘the EPA’s not so-green emissions plan,’ in which the editorial board claim that the agencies’ plans to regulate biomass wastes as renewable power sources under the Clean Power Plan (CPP) will “sharply increase forest clearing.”  The Post goes on to state that “giving biomass too much credit would encourage a lot of wood burning,” claiming that the CPP could result in 70 percent of the current US timber harvest being used for bioenergy, resulting in increased worldwide timber demand. The Post’s claims are not backed up by forestry economics and science. Additionally, providing an economic incentive to maintain forested lands, as bioenergy and long-lived timber products do, can also help to preserve forests and farms in the face of rampant exurban development. 

 Biomass power can be derived from both waste (forestry, agriculture, organics, manure, landfills, and waste-water treatment) and purpose-grown biomass crops, such as perennial grasses. In November, EPA released its Framework for Assessing Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources, which recognizes the important role that using “waste-derived feedstocks” as well as “forest-derived industrial by-products” can play in the low-carbon economy, as they “are likely to have minimal or no net atmospheric contributions of biogenic CO2 emissions, or even reduce such impacts, when compared with an alternate fate of disposal.”   

EESI maintains, as do many forestry groups, scientists, and forestry product industries, that there is a fundamental difference between carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels and emissions from burning biomass that is sustainably harvested and regrown, and thus able to sequester carbon. Quantifying carbon emissions from woody fuels is important because individual states will need to assess whether their wood-based energy resources qualify under the Clean Power Plan. Several states have already created definitions for sustainable biomass energy. 

Under the proposed Clean Power Plan, states could use biomass power as a compliance tool for carbon reductions.  While the few percent of overall generation expected from bioenergy may seem small, bioenergy can redirect a waste material that is otherwise burned or landfilled to a suitable re-use.  This idea has led some groups, like the Cary Institute, to make the unfounded claim that the EPA’s proposal to allow the utilization of woody biomass waste materials will “encourage large-scale harvesting of wood to replace coal and other fossil fuels.” 

In November, the National Association of University Forest Resources Programs (NAUFRP) sent a letter signed by 100 forestry professors to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging the agency to consider the well-established benefits of sustainable forest biomass energy, as documented by scientific literature and summarized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  In the NAUFRP letter they state that “research demonstrates that demand for wood helps keep land in forest and incentivizes investments in new and more productive forests, all of which have significant carbon benefits.”  Indeed, a recent report from the U.S. Forest Service finds that a robust pellet fuel production industry in the Southeast would actually encourage land owners to increase tree stocks. 

Today, the Southeast is at a crossroads -- the area is rapidly urbanizing.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, urbanization in the Southeast could increase 190 percent by 2060, resulting in a 15 percent loss of agricultural land, a 10 percent loss of forests, and a 12 percent loss of grasslands, as well as negatively impacting wildlife, water and air quality. Bioenergy can help preserve rural land. Providing an economic incentive to maintain farms and forested lands, as bioenergy and forest products do, will help to preserve these lands. Preserving such open spaces is a critical component of climate adaptation, protecting critical wildlife habitats, and preserving air and water quality.

In contrast to the opining of the Washington Post and others, bioenergy over the long term will help transition away from coal and other fossil generation sources.  Without economic incentives, landowners face the very real pressures of development.  In order to preserve working lands – these lands must have value for land owners.  Therefore, bioenergy has a small, but important role, in continuing to preserve the nation’s working forests, increase carbon stores in forests and help transition us away from fossil energy.


For more information see:

National Association of University Forest Resources Programs letter to EPA

The EPA’s not-so-green emissions plan, The Washington Post

EESI Comments to EPA on Clean Power Plan—Asks Agency to Consider Suite of Sustainable Biomass, EESI

Renewable Energy Policies Drive Production of Southern Wood Pellets for Bioenergy, U.S. Forest Service