Most people believe that the U.S. has, for the most part, moved past its need to burn wood. According to this line of thinking, people living in extremely remote areas and campers are the last holdouts, relying on wood fires to heat and feed themselves. However, the EPA’s memo this week announcing that it would treat biomass as carbon neutral shows that burning wood remains a potential industrial source of energy, an announcement that helps the industry, but has generated mixed reactions from environmentalists.
“Today’s announcement grants America’s foresters much-needed certainty and clarity with respect to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass,” said EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. “Managed forests improve air and water quality, while creating valuable jobs and thousands of products that improve our daily lives. This is environmental stewardship in action.”
The EPA’s announcement allows the agency to “bolster domestic energy production, provide jobs to rural communities, and promote environmental stewardship by improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and helping to ensure our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere.”
The change stemmed from executive orders compelling Federal Agencies to undertake regulatory reform measures and to support American energy independence.
The document released by the EPA stresses that this is a “statement of agency policy…not a scientific determination,” which demonstrates how contentious biomass is within the world of alternative energy.
For years, environmentalists have questioned the carbon status of biomass. Unlike other carbon-neutral fuels, biomass use releases carbon into the air and is generally dirtier to burn than natural gas. Proponents argue that this release is balanced out over the lifetime of the trees, since they remove carbon from the atmosphere as they grow.
“In general woody biomass is less energy dense than fossil fuels, and contains higher quantities of moisture and less hydrogen, at the point of combustion burning wood for energy usually emits more greenhouse gases per unit of energy produced than fossil fuels,” wrote Chatham House, an independent London-based policy institute, in a report last year.
A British study found that, because biomass burns at lower temperatures and has a larger processing and supply chain, it actually emits more carbon per kilowatt hour generated than coal. Another study, though, this one sponsored by the Biomass Power Association, examined the carbon output of a 50 MW biomass power plant in New Hampshire, finding that it resulted in immediate carbon savings of 115 percent over natural gas, with a 98 percent carbon savings over 100 years. Much of these savings depends on the generation technology used at a given plant.
Biomass also functions on a different timescale than other carbon neutral energy sources. While solar and wind power are carbon neutral at generation, biomass is carbon neutral over the life of the forest. This means that the “payback time” for the carbon debt is between 40 and 100 years.
“The big problem is you’re cutting old-growth forests and expecting them to regrow,” William Schlesinger, president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and an EPA Science Advisory Board member, told the Washington Post. “That’s totally unrealistic in 20 years and not guaranteed over 100 years.”
Meanwhile, the biomass industry commended Pruitt’s decision, saying that they were “greatly pleased” by his announcement, which came after years of regulatory uncertainty.
“Despite the abundant scientific evidence of the carbon benefits of using biomass fuel to generate power, our industry has experienced regulatory uncertainty for several years,” said Carrie Annand, executive director of the Biomass Power Association in a statement. “In recognizing the carbon benefits of biomass and its role in healthy forest management, the federal government joins every state with a Renewable Portfolio Standard, as well as many foreign governments that use biomass to reduce carbon emissions.”
The EPA hopes that its policy change will encourage the maintenance of forests and discourage their conversion to non-forest uses. Even so, it is reserving the ability to revisit the decision in the future given updated information on forest carbon stocks.