Farm-state deal on House bill pares biomass restrictions

House Democrats unveiled language today on biomass energy and agricultural emissions offsets that lays out specifics of a deal aimed at corralling support from farm state Democrats for a sweeping climate and energy bill.

Under the deal with Democratic leaders, Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) will attach the provisions as an amendment to the legislation, which is expected on the House floor as soon as tomorrow.

The amendment -- unveiled very early this morning -- spells out how the bill will address a controversial bioenergy issue that had been unsettled last night. It pares some restrictions on sources of "renewable biomass" that can be used for biofuels and electricity under major programs: the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), which was expanded in 2007, and the climate bill's proposed renewable electricity standard (RES).

The bill's renewable biomass definition now mirrors the 2008 farm bill with respect to private lands, stripping language aimed at preventing land clearing that was in the version of the bill approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee.

But Energy and Commerce-approved ground rules on use of biomass -- such as slash and thinnings -- from federal forests and lands were largely retained, including prohibitions on official wilderness and conservation lands.


However, while the Energy and Commerce version prevented use of materials from "old growth or mature forest stands," the Peterson amendment strips the limit on mature stands and replaces it with "late successional forests stands." This would provide the U.S. Forest Service a clearer definition of what materials cannot be used, according to Agriculture Committee staff.

The amendment also calls for a National Academy of Sciences report on how "sources of renewable biomass contribute to the goals of increasing America's energy independence, protecting the environment, and reducing global warming pollution."

Based on the findings, U.S. EPA would have authority to issue rules revising the non-federal lands portion of the renewable biomass definition as it relates to the RFS. Based on the same findings, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission could modify this part of the definition as it applied to the underlying climate bill's proposed RES. The RES requires utilities to supply increasing amounts of power from sources such as wind, solar and biomass.

Elsewhere, the Peterson language spells out the deal announced earlier this week that places the Agriculture Department, not EPA, at the helm of the farm and forest sector's greenhouse gas emissions offset program.

It also contains a separate agreement that blocks EPA -- for at least six years -- from including emissions from international indirect land use changes when weighing biofuels' carbon footprint under the 2007 RFS.

Emissions linked to land-use changes -- and the extent to which they can be measured accurately -- have become controversial because the 2007 law that expanded the RFS also requires ethanol and other fuels to have lower lifecycle emissions, by varying degrees, than conventional fuels.

Under the amendment, the National Academy of Sciences would study indirect emissions, and then USDA and EPA would decide whether these emissions can be accurately measured. Only then could they be included in EPA rules implementing the RFS.

The amendment also exempts biomass-based diesel from the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions in the RFS if it comes from plants that were built or under construction when the 2007 law passed. A large amount of the corn ethanol portion of the mandate -- which reaches 15 billion gallons -- is already exempted from the emissions requirements.

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