EPA reconsidering biomass

WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency signaled Wednesday that it may be more open to considering timber byproducts and other biomass as an energy source that fits within the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

In a memo to all of the agency’s regional air directors, Janet G. McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation, wrote that the agency is developing a framework to evaluate the carbon dioxide emissions from biomass, with the expectation there will be climate policy benefits to using biomass to generate energy.

“Information considered in preparing the second draft of the Framework, including the (Science Advisory Board) peer review and stakeholder input, supports the finding that use of waste-derived feedstocks and certain forest-derived industrial byproducts are likely to have minimal or no net atmospheric contributions of biogenic C02 emissions, or even reduce such impacts, when compared with an alternate fate of disposal,” McCabe wrote.

The memo also opens the door for harvesting timber to burn to generate power, so long as the forests are sustainably managed.

“In many cases, the generation of sustainably sourced bioenergy products can be an integral part of regimes that promote conservation and sustainable forest management,” the memo states.

Norman Johnson, a professor of forestry at Oregon State University, said the EPA should be applauded for trying to reflect the uniqueness and complexity of forestry in its emissions policy.

In part, the agency is recognizing that the waste produced during logging, called the slash, is often burned on-site if there isn’t an economically viable alternative, such as hauling it to a mill where it can be turned into wood pellets, he said. When disposed of in a burning pile, the same amount of CO2 is released, but there is no energy-producing benefit, he said.

Additionally, the EPA would consider granting exemptions from the emissions limit if the source of the fuel is a sustainably managed forest.

“They’ve decided, by sustainably managed, they mean managed for the long run,” Johnson said. “They mean that the forest comes back,” and the land isn’t converted into something besides a healthy, viable forest.

Within the scientific community, there is debate on whether burning biomass for energy contributes to climate change. The answer often depends on the time frame considered, Johnson said.

In the short term, biomass compares unfavorably with natural gas, because it doesn’t produce as much energy for the same amount of CO2 produced. But when the CO2 absorbed by the trees that regrow is factored in, biomass can outperform fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions, he said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said Wednesday’s announcement helps alleviate some of the uncertainty for companies that want to invest in using biomass, such as the byproduct produced by forest thinning projects that reduce hazardous fuel loads.

“I believe that today is a significant step forward,” he said. “EPA appears to be fully heading towards (some types of biomass) being considered carbon neutral.”

Adding an energy component to forest sustainability will make thinning and hazardous fuel reduction more economically viable, he said. This can lead to healthier forests and reduced risk of wildfire.

Merkley contrasted Wednesday’s announcement with Tuesday’s Senate vote on the Keystone XL pipeline, which would help transport oil in Canada’s tar sands across America to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Merkley was one of 41 Democrats who voted against approving the controversial pipeline, which failed to advance by one vote.

To keep global warming to a modest increase of 2 degrees centigrade, four-fifths of the world’s fossil fuels need to be left in the ground, he said.

“That means you should not be turning the tap on to move the reserves of fossil fuels of the tar sands,” which is some of the dirtiest oil available, he said. “But it means you should be taking advantage of biofuels, which don’t add to the carbon dioxide global warming problem.”