The science supporting forest biomass energy is extensive, well-established and well understood. One hundred prominent scientists from around the country, forestry and carbon researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), renowned forest economists and other science experts have joined a growing chorus of support for the carbon benefits of biomass. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself has stated, “The carbon dioxide emitted from burning biomass will not increase CO2 in the air if it is done on a sustainable basis.”
A common refrain within the science community is that biomass energy produces significant carbon benefits for three reasons: 1) it reduces overall carbon accumulations in the atmosphere by displacing fossil fuels, 2) biomass carbon is recycled through an ongoing natural cycle, and 3) biomass markets help recruit and maintain forest carbon by creating economic incentives to plant more trees and keep land forested. In recent weeks, members of Congress in both political parties have united in support of this well-established science.
In a strong endorsement, 46 Senators representing the full political spectrum wrote to EPA, USDA and the Department of Energy urging the agencies to remove policy uncertainty by adopting a clear and simple approach reflecting the full carbon benefits of biomass energy. As stated in the letter, "The carbon neutrality of forest biomass has been recognized repeatedly by numerous studies, agencies, institutions and rules around the world, and there is no dispute about the carbon neutrality of biomass derived from residuals of forest products manufacturing."
Forest owners agree with Congress that the science is clear and the policy should be equally clear. It should also be simple enough to implement in the real world so forest owners can be rewarded rather than punished for providing renewable energy and carbon solutions. Unfortunately, complexity and uncertainty in federal policy remains and does not appear to be going away anytime soon. EPA will have the next word on biomass in forthcoming greenhouse gas regulations the agency will finalize later this summer. Forest owners hope EPA will apply the science and finally adopt a clear and simple policy on biomass. But even if the agency seeks to provide the needed clarity, the final rules will be subject to legal challenges that will most likely introduce more confusion and prolong uncertainty.
In the face of confusion and uncertainty, it is appropriate for Congress to provide direction based on sound and broadly-accepted scientific principles, especially when federal agencies don’t.
The House and Senate have included language in their EPA funding bills directing federal agencies to base their biomass carbon policies on science driven data collection and analysis conducted by the USDA. The language also preserves flexibility for states to develop their own policy approaches to biomass as provided by federal law. In a telling demonstration of Congressional unity, the House and Senate language is identical.
The House and Senate language provides the best near-term opportunity to end the uncertainty around biomass. While the end game on funding bills remains unclear at this point, there is plenty of time for Congress and the Administration to work together in the coming months to reach agreement on a clear and simple approach based on established science. The foundational concepts in the legislation already enjoy strong bipartisan support. The details of the language can certainly be improved upon if needed.
Of course biomass detractors will characterize any effort to provide policy certainty is a manipulation of the science. They seek to confuse policy makers and extend uncertainty for as long as possible using whatever means they have available. That is no surprise. But it should not distract policy makers in Congress and the Administration from building on strong bipartisan support to provide a scientifically sound biomass solution that achieves both clarity and certainty.
Forest owners and Congressional leaders agree on the science and policy around biomass. The Administration is well positioned to engage Congress to adopt a final policy that is clear and simple. The time is right to resolve the question once and for all and finally put biomass back on the right side of the renewable energy and carbon ledger where it belongs.