In 2010 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a mistake in the Tailoring Rule by treating carbon emissions from forest biomass energy the same as fossil fuel emissions, irrespective of the fact that biomass is a renewable energy source that recycles carbon. EPA admitted its mistake and commenced a three year effort to correct it.
Now, five years later, despite public reassurance by the EPA that it will get the job done, the biomass outlook has gone from murky to murkier. Notwithstanding well-established scientific evidence demonstrating the carbon benefits of biomass, the regulatory problem remains unfixed. EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) has yet to finish answering questions posed by EPA to inform policy development, and the SAB response may end up being too complicated and unreliable to help. All the while, EPA has not yet begun to make needed changes to its Tailoring Rule to address the biomass mistake. Most recently, EPA’s Clean Power Plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions introduces new arbitrary and ill-defined requirements for biomass that add further complexity and uncertainty to the mix. To compound the problem, EPA is seeking public comment on these requirements at the same time states are trying to figure out what to do with them. Confusion is at an apex, and the policy situation for biomass is an unworkable mess. But it doesn’t have to be.
All along the solution has been quite simple. The most basic principle of the forest carbon cycle is that so long as forests are taking in more carbon than they are releasing, they are "carbon neutral" or not adding carbon to the atmosphere. That means that the use of material taken from the forest – regardless of whether it is being used to make building products, paper and packaging or energy – is not contributing to carbon buildup in the atmosphere. Furthermore, data show that the use of some materials – residuals from manufacturing and harvest operations, and material thinned from the forest to enhance tree growth and protect forest health – have minimal carbon emission impacts or may even reduce atmospheric carbon irrespective of what is happening with overall forest carbon.
A simple solution on biomass has been endorsed by nearly half the members of the Senate and more than triple that number in the House. Policy makers across the political spectrum agree – we need to fix the biomass mess.
A legislative fix is embedded in the Fiscal Year 2016 funding legislation that has now passed full committee scrutiny in both the House and the Senate. For now the end-of-year legislative outlook in Congress is as murky as the outlook for biomass. But if the Congressional outlook clears up and funding legislation moves, the biomass fix should be included. It is the right thing to do; it will provide clarity for federal, state and local authorities, and it will finally restore the certainty for forest owners and biomass energy producers that has been missing since 2010.