Last week the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) panel on biogenic carbon emissions completed its final draft report providing recommendations for assessing biomass carbon emissions. Assuming the full SAB approves the report later this spring, the work of the biogenic panel will finally conclude, providing yet another science reference to inform policy.
Not surprisingly, the panel’s report confirms much of what we already know about determining the carbon neutrality of forest biomass – we should focus on actual changes in forest carbon or “carbon stocks;” we should consider long time frames to fully capture carbon change – the panel believes 100 years is reasonable; we should consider carbon stocks at broad geographic scales; and we should account for economic factors such as the impact of markets on forest investment, replanting and retention. These conclusions reflect the position of forest carbon experts across the country, including the 100 prominent forest scientists from 80 universities who shared their views with EPA in a letter in November of 2014.
Yet, throughout its deliberations, the SAB panel complained of operating within a policy vacuum. This raises once more the obvious point: We need a biomass policy.
Some have argued that to avoid “legislating science” policy had to wait for the SAB panel to complete its work. That wait is now over, and the panel’s findings confirm that waiting was not necessary in the first place. Importantly, the panel was careful not to endorse any specific policy direction. Even its preference for using complicated modeling and assumptions rather than field data did not insist on a specific approach. That is because the decision whether to use models or data is ultimately a policy call, a point the panel clearly understands.
Congress should now feel fully unfettered to adopt a biomass policy consistent with science and reliant on sound data. With recent court decisions casting an even greater shadow of uncertainty on administrative action, the need for legislation is greater than ever. The timing is right for Congress to act and provide the policy clarity that has been eluding us for far too long.