RENEWABLE ENERGY

Congress tells EPA biomass is carbon neutral. Now what?

Two amendments tucked inside the bipartisan energy bill that passed the Senate yesterday are elevating the question of whether biomass is a renewable energy source on par with wind and solar in the eyes of federal policy.

Both measures drew ire from environmental groups and praise from the biomass industry. But even with this newfound attention, some industry analysts said biomass policy remains unclear.

"Whatever effect it does have would take a while, but it could force the issue a bit more," said Jessie Stolark, a policy associate with the nonprofit Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI).

The "Energy Policy Modernization Act," S. 2012, is the first comprehensive energy bill to pass Congress in nine years. The bill, approved by the Senate in a 85-12 vote, contains updates and guidance on policy ranging from expediting permits for natural gas export facilities to fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund (Greenwire April, 20).

There were more than 60 amendments, and two that proposed guidance for biomass -- the act of burning organic materials like tree trimmings and agricultural waste for power. Getting federal and state agencies to recognize biomass as a carbon-neutral renewable energy source has been a long-standing battle for the industry.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 8 percent of all renewable utility-scale power was generated by burning woody biomass in 2014.

The carbon-neutral amendment

The amendment introduced by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) answered the industry's prayers. It calls on U.S. EPA as well as the Agriculture and Energy departments to craft a coordinated policy on biomass that reflects "the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy."

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Dave Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, praised the Collins-Klobuchar amendment.

"The overall benefit of this is that it reaffirms the role of biomass as a renewable energy source and part of our overall energy and climate solution," he said. "A provision like this, if enacted, would provide clarity and consistency, which we're lacking right now."

Sarah Dodge-Palmer, vice president of government affairs for the American Wood Council, called the bill "a step in the right direction in getting our country's public policies aligned to recognize our industry's unique biomass use as carbon neutral and as part of the sustainable carbon cycle."

But the idea that biomass is inherently carbon neutral incensed environmental groups.

In a letter sent Tuesday to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Friends of the Earth, the Dogwood Alliance and dozens of other environmental groups said they would not back the bipartisan energy package because of the inclusion of the biomass amendments.

"Legislating the carbon neutrality of an emissions-producing technology sets a dangerous precedent for all climate science, in that it attempts to override physical facts with policy declarations," the letter stated. "The language also sets a dangerous precedent in seeming to give other agencies the authority to effectively veto EPA determinations on matters within its jurisdiction."

For the last five years, a panel under EPA's Science Advisory Board has been working through the science on how to account for carbon released from the burning of biomass. Earlier this month, it punted on the issue, choosing instead to send a draft report back to the panel for further consideration (ClimateWire, April 4).

Unlike solar and wind energies, which are limitless in their supply and do not contribute carbon to the atmosphere when generated, biomass releases the carbon contained inside of the organic material when it's burned. Since it can be regrown, sequestering the carbon out of the atmosphere once more, many see it as a renewable energy source.

When accounting for carbon emissions from burning biomass, the numbers depend significantly on the time frame used to do the calculations as well as where and how the biomass materials are sourced. Critics fear a biomass boom could cause forest clearcutting, for example.

Because of that, the scientific community remains divided about the carbon neutrality of burning woody waste and other organic materials for electricity.

In February, 65 scientists sent a letter to 10 senators opposing the carbon neutrality amendment.

"This well-intentioned legislation, which claims to address climate change, would in fact promote deforestation in the U.S. and elsewhere and make climate change much worse," they wrote.

In 2014, more than 100 scientists argued the exact opposite in a letter sent to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Collins of Maine and the bipartisan group of senators that supported the amendment say consistent, pro-biomass policies could help bolster forest management and forest industries.

"Biomass energy is sustainable, responsible, renewable and economically significant as an energy source, and many states, including Maine, are already relying on biomass to meet their renewable energy goals," Collins said.

In Maine, a lack of pro-biomass policies has contributed to a collapse of the industry, which supports hundreds of jobs in the forest-covered state. Low prices for natural gas and oil, coupled with disappearing biomass incentives in neighboring states, helped push Maine's biomass sector nearly to collapse.

A bill passed Friday by state lawmakers will send $13.4 million into the sector through power purchase agreements for energy generated by the state's wood-fired power plants.

Managing forests for energy

Outside of the scientific question of the carbon emissions generated from burning biomass, Stolark with EESI said the Collins-Klobuchar amendment could have another impact -- bringing federal agencies that deal with forest management and energy together for the first time.

Since sustainable biomass is a key to making the energy source truly renewable, the amendment could be a big deal, she said.

"It could be good, actually, if you could pull in forestry management to the conversation," Stolark said. "We inherently don't manage our forests for carbon, and if you start using them for energy, it could have a lot of unintended consequences."

The amendment calls for the establishment of "clear and simple policies for the use of forest biomass as an energy solution" -- and adding forest management to the picture could complicate that effort.

"This is not necessarily going to simplify things for the industry, either," Stolark said. "If the industry really wanted progress on this, they need to go to the states."

Biomass and carbon capture and sequestration

Environmental groups also came out against West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's amendment to consider co-firing biomass and coal to produce power.

The amendment includes language that would open the door for coal power plants to co-fire with biomass and achieve "net-negative carbon emissions."

Although the inclusion of biomass in what was primarily an amendment aimed at boosting funding for coal technology and carbon capture and sequestration may seem to be a case of strange bedfellows, Stolark said the measure actually mirrors a wider conversation occurring among climate scientists searching for ways to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

In its fourth climate assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that the world will need to employ both biomass and carbon capture and sequestration to meet global emissions goals.

The two technologies combined might be able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, just as the Manchin amendment suggests.

In an essay published in Nature Geoscience last year, Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, wrote that many climate models trying to make the 2 C math work rely on "negative emissions" -- by burning biomass and then capturing its carbon emissions.

That technology, he argued, is still at the "conceptual stage of development," which means scientists who rosily predict that the world can meet its emissions goals are "choosing to censor their own research."

Nancy Heimann, president and CEO of Enginuity Worldwide, a company that currently makes products from biomass that can be co-fired in coal plants, said national energy policy should not reject any technology that can reduce emissions.

She cautioned that a key aspect of using biomass is to make sure the feedstocks are sustainably sourced, but in general, Heimann said, both amendments "speak to the fact that biomass is becoming another source of annually renewable energy."

The Senate energy bill will now head to conference talks with the House to reconcile the two bills. The House passed its version of the energy bill, H.R. 8, in December.

This story also appears in E&E Daily.

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