CLIMATE:

EPA grants biomass a final reprieve from CO2 rules

As proposed earlier this year, biomass-burning facilities will be spared from new federal curbs on gases that help cause climate change.

The final plan released Friday by U.S. EPA will give biomass a three-year pass while the agency studies the effect of plant emissions on climate change. During that time, industrial plants that burn woody biomass and landfills that release the greenhouse gases from decomposing biomass won't need permits before starting construction and won't need Title V operating permits.

The exemption was proposed in January based on fears that the rules could chill development of what Administrator Lisa Jackson described as "renewable, homegrown power sources" (Greenwire, Jan. 12).

At its best, biomass from forests or agriculture would have little or no long-term climate impact because dead plants release carbon dioxide as they decompose, but EPA is still trying to decide how those emissions should be tallied. The agency said Friday that it will send a study on that point to its Science Advisory Board later this year before it decides whether to craft rules for biomass.

"Three years is ample time to complete these tasks," the final rule says. "It is possible that the subsequent rulemaking, depending on the nature of EPA's determinations, would supersede this rulemaking and become effective in fewer than three years."

The National Alliance of Forest Owners, a trade group, said the final decision recognizes that biomass is an "environmentally beneficial alternative to fossil fuels." David Tenny, the group's president, issued a statement urging EPA to include the entire life cycle of plants in its study, rather than calculating emissions during a short-term window when emissions might be higher.

Critics of biomass agree that it could ease the emissions from oil, gas and coal, but they worry that companies will chop down live plants rather than harvest dead logs and branches from the forest floor. They say the benefits hinge on whether new plants are grown to replace the ones that are burned, reabsorbing carbon dioxide that was put into the atmosphere.

EPA already knows that not all biomass is equal when it comes to climate change, said Jonathan Lewis, an attorney at the environmental group Clean Air Task Force, in a statement.

"There had been a shred of hope that the agency might inject a little nuance into their final rule, rather than just exempt everything, but that's not what happened," Lewis wrote in an email Friday.

Without the exemption, new biomass facilities would have needed to show that they are using the best available technology to control their greenhouse gas emissions. EPA has said that using biomass -- such as by mixing wood waste with coal to generate electricity -- is often enough to make the cut.

Click here to read the final rule.

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