Last month the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the Tailoring Rule, thereby addressing one of the key risks of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) treating biomass energy carbon emissions the same as fossil fuel emissions. While the decision does not put this important issue to rest, the Court's action provides EPA the best occasion to clarify unambiguously that biomass is part of our nation's energy and climate solution.
EPA can most directly set the record straight on biomass by completing its long awaited approach to biomass carbon accounting, promised in 2011 when the agency promulgated the rule deferring implementation of the Tailoring Rule for biomass. Biomass energy should play an important mitigation role in EPA’s regulations and strategies addressing carbon emissions. EPA's approach will serve as the common reference point for how this is accomplished.
For example, EPA's approach to carbon accounting will provide the basis for EPA to use biomass as a carbon reduction strategy for existing and future power plants under the agency's recently proposed regulations of fossil fuel power plants. Biomass can and should serve as a renewable low carbon supplement or alternative to fossil fuels, particularly in states where biomass is a plentiful and reliable energy source.
But EPA can only accomplish this by clearly recognizing the full carbon benefits of biomass and unambiguously affirming its role as part of the climate change solution. EPA acknowledged this in the preamble to its recent proposed regulation of fossil fuel power plants, stating: "EPA recognizes that biomass-derived fuels can play an important role in CO2 emission reduction strategies. We anticipate that states likely will consider biomass-derived fuels in energy production as a way to mitigate the CO2 emissions attributed to the energy sector and include them as part of their plans to meet the emission reduction requirements of this rule and we think it is important to define a clear path for states to do so."
Defining a "clear path" will require EPA to send clear signals to states and the marketplace to replace the confusion and ambivalence that has prevailed over the past four years. EPA can accomplish this in three steps.
First, EPA's approach on biomass should reconcile scientific rigor and the inevitable lack of certainty. All parties with a stake in biomass policy agree that EPA should base its policies on good science. The body of science supporting biomass as a carbon beneficial energy source is plentiful and growing. EPA can rely on this body of science to achieve the analytical rigor necessary to support a pro-biomass policy. At the same time the agency must acknowledge technical limits of science that prevent absolute answers on every aspect of the biomass carbon cycle. The agency must avoid the temptation to use speculative modeling and assumptions in the pursuit of certainty. Rather, the agency should rely on empirical forest inventory data to measure actual changes in forest carbon over time. The U.S. Department of Agriculture boasts the world's best forest inventory system, which provides a robust source of carbon data. Using this data EPA can satisfy the demands of science while avoiding a futile quest for absolute certainty.
Second, the agency should clearly distinguish between policy and science. Scientific inquiry sometimes takes a circuitous path to the right outcome. Policy tries to achieve the right outcome in the simplest way possible. Because of this, EPA can base a simple policy approach on a rigorous and much more complicated body of science. When the science concludes that biomass energy typically or almost always produces significant carbon benefits, then the policy can reflect that conclusion without re-enacting the scientific inquiry upon which it is based. This means EPA can ultimately adopt a relatively simple approach acknowledging that biomass emissions have a de minimis or beneficial impact on atmospheric carbon that squares with the science without imposing a complex process on energy producers that makes biomass impractical.
Finally, the agency while setting a national approach for recognizing the benefits of biomass should simultaneously encourage the same flexibility that it seeks to afford states in its description of the recently proposed fossil fuel power plant rule. Because individual states will ultimately implement EPA's Clean Air Act policies, EPA's approach to biomass should enable individual states to make biomass work as an energy solution regardless of the policy differences that exist from one state to the next. Providing this kind of direction and flexibility will enable biomass energy capacity to grow in the states and localities where it makes the most sense. It will also send a strong signal to other countries that the U.S. has confidence in biomass as a sustainable and carbon friendly energy source.
While not the only elements of EPA's path forward, these three approaches will provide a strong basis for establishing the role of biomass as an energy and climate change solution. Once effectively applied they will remove the ambivalence of the past four years and enable the Administration, biomass power producers and forest owners to work together to produce more home-grown renewable energy that will improve the overall carbon and energy outlook for decades to come.