Greens decry ‘biomass loophole’ ahead of Interior-EPA vote

By Sean Reilly | 06/16/2016 07:30 AM EDT

Environmental groups are pre-emptively objecting to the possible inclusion of an "anti-environmental" rider in a fiscal 2017 Senate spending bill that could undercut the treatment of biomass emissions as a carbon source.

The bill, which would set budgets for U.S. EPA, the Interior Department and the Forest Service, is scheduled for a Senate Appropriations Committee markup this morning.

The panel won’t make the legislative text and an accompanying report public until after the markup ends. Attempts to confirm that the bill contains a policy rider related to biomass were unsuccessful yesterday; it was also unclear whether any committee member will seek to add such language as an amendment.


But in a Tuesday letter to Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and other leaders, 48 green organizations voiced concern about any provision to set policies "that fail to account for the carbon pollution emitted by biomass facilities."

"Such language has already been attached to the House companion bill, and would set a dangerous precedent for climate science by proposing fundamentally flawed carbon accounting," the groups wrote. Signers included Friends of the Earth and other national organizations, along with groups like the Dogwood Alliance and Green Delaware.

In last year’s comparable appropriations bill, the Senate panel tucked in a provision that would have treated emissions from burning wood and other "forest biomass" as carbon neutral, an approach that industry advocates argue is warranted because trees absorb carbon dioxide. The provision was dropped from the final omnibus spending legislation signed in December.

In a statement to E&E Daily last night, Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest and Paper Association, signaled that the industry hoped to see something similar in this year’s measure. Paper and wood product manufacturers get most of their power by burning sawdust and other "manufacturing residuals," Harman said, thereby avoiding CO2 emissions each year equal to the output of some 35 million cars.

Critics counter that trees absorb CO2 much more slowly than combustion releases it. In a separate letter yesterday to Cochran and ranking member Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), former Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) also opposed adoption of a "biomass loophole."

Waxman, who now runs a lobbying and communications firm, highlighted one study that painted a mixed picture. While forest biomass has the potential to significantly reduce carbon releases, it may outpace fossil fuels as an emissions source in the short-term, according to the findings cited by Waxman. He urged the committee to reject any provision that "ignores carbon pollution from burning biomass."

Waxman is working for a group of European environmental organizations on this issue, a firm employee said.