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EPA Issues New Carbon Guidance for Biomass Power

Politico Pro Energy
By Erica Martinson – 11/19/14 6:44 PM EST

The EPA took another stab Wednesday at accounting for carbon dioxide emissions from power sources that burn biomass such as wood and agricultural waste.

Aimed at helping states as they plan to meet EPA’s climate change regulations, the “framework” comes after years of court wrangling and provides a way to calculate when burning biomass can be considered a carbon-neutral source of power, or in some cases, an actual cut in carbon emissions.

EPA is “making a very clear statement to states that in implementing the Clean Power Plan, biomass can play a key role,” said Bob Cleaves, president of the Biomass Power Association. “This decision gives our industry certainty as to how we will be regulated under the Clean Power Plan, and helps secure the future of the biomass industry.”

The EPA move is intended to help account for fuels that would otherwise be waste, and consequently have minimal or no net contributions to carbon pollution, or, in some cases, when burning them for fuel actually cuts the eventual carbon emissions.

“Based on our preliminary review, it appears EPA recognizes the carbon neutrality of biomass energy produced from wood products manufacturing residuals,” said Robert Glowinski, president of the American Wood Council, whose members derive about 75 percent of their energy from residual biomass.

“Using manufacturing residuals takes advantage of the inherent energy available in biomass that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere from disposal or biodegradation. Sustainably managed forests and the products that come from them also act as carbon sinks, absorbing and sequestering atmospheric carbon that would otherwise contribute to greenhouse gas formation,” he added.

In a memo to EPA regions on the framework, EPA air chief Janet McCabe cited President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, noting that it “highlights the critical role that America’s forests play in addressing carbon pollution” by absorbing 12 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere each year.

And, she said, states and EPA regions can look to the new framework to get an idea about how EPA plans to treat biogenic CO2 emissions in both its “Clean Power Plan” — the greenhouse gas rule for existing utilities — and its “PSD” program for pre-construction permits.

In early greenhouse gas regulatory efforts, EPA did not exempt biomass, but began a three-year effort to build a framework to figure out on a case-by-case basis how the CO2 impacts of bio-power sources should be considered.

The agency will propose new revisions to the PSD rules — which were largely upheld by the Supreme Court earlier this year — to include an exemption for greenhouse gases from “waste-derived feedstocks and from non-waste biogenic feedstocks derived from sustainable forest or agricultural practices,” though what counts as sustainable seems to initially be up to the states.

The agency’s revisions to deal with biomass power in the PSD rules will be part of its overall effort to come into full compliance with the Supreme Court ruling, McCabe said.

The agency anticipates that some states will want to include biogenic fuels in their compliance plans for meeting the demands of the utility climate rule, and EPA plans to recognize the climate benefits of waste- and forest-derived industrial byproduct feedstocks, McCabe said.

EPA’s first draft framework, released in 2011, didn’t fare so well before the Science Advisory Board, and the new version is much more detailed in how the agency plans to account for the emissions.

EPA isn’t done with the framework entirely. The agency asked its independent Science Advisory Board to review it, and the agency plans to conduct more technical work.

“As part of this technical process, we will continue to assess and closely monitor overall bioenergy demand and landscape conditions for changes that might have negative impacts on public health or the environment,” McCabe wrote in her memo.

This EPA guidance is its second attempt at the framework, and Wednesday’s release is “far more exhaustive and more complex than the original,” Cleaves said, adding that his group is “encouraged by what we’re seeing from the framework.”

And the framework doesn’t label all biomass as carbon neutral, Cleaves noted.

“I’m hoping that the SAB will … recognize that the methodology hits all the appropriate notes. … I’m hopeful that the SAB and EPA can come together on this,” Cleaves said.