As near-term prospects for strong U.S. climate policy have dwindled to nothing, many observers have focused on Obama EPA’s push to regulate greenhouse gases however it can. The so-called Tailoring Rule, the amendment of the Clean Air Act amendment known as the New Source Review requiring the consideration of GHGs in permitting of new or enlarged energy facilities or other large emitters, has become a lightning rod. ”Backdoor cap-and-trade,” charges the opposition. But the biomass energy community has stated a narrower concern: the treatment of emissions from biomass-powered facilities. This post reviews where we stand on that particular issue as of January 2011.
The key issue: how to distinguish between “anthropogenic” vs. “biogenic” emissions
In theory, the use of biomass for energy results in no net atmospheric CO2 because the feedstock is plant matter, and plants pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. This “biogenic” carbon should not count the same way as the “anthropogenic” carbon from combusting fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, it is not so simple. First of all, the use of forest or other biomass for energy could liquidate a carbon stock faster than it gets regenerated. Consider the extreme case of deforestation to burn trees. Second, it is difficult to know how various carbon stocks are doing; this recent GHG inventory of Oregon forests shows how volatile carbon sequestration can be for a given landscape. And third, even if some feedstock or a particular piece of land can be certified as doing well, it is often difficult to know which energy source is using which feedstock. At the very least, we don’t yet have mechanisms for that flow of information.
This controversy, with different groups obviously having skin in the game (one example from the Oregon biomass industry), has led to a cottage industry of carbon analyses of biomass energy. Two that have attracted large shares of the attention are the 2010 study by the Manomet Center and studies (and recently, a de facto rebuttal to Manomet, PDF) by Jay O’Laughlin of the University of Idaho. The Manomet site is replete with references to articles that critique the institute’s study, as well as responses to those critiques (including one to O’Laughlin that is particularly informative).
My overall impressive of this on-going debate is that baselines and circumstances differ from place to place, and that these differences provide irreconcilable starting points — but not irreconcilable methodologies. An excellent recent example of a study that carefully specifies its baselines and methods, therefore avoiding a shrill tone: this one produced by SEI for Olympic Region Clean Air Agency in Washington State. Note how Figure 1, on p. 8, articulates the “starting point for this analysis” in order to avoid confusion and politics.
Initial ruling, political firestorm, delay in ruling
Without one uncontroversial way to assess carbon consequences of biomass energy, EPA did something straightforward and, in a sloppy but genuine way, true: the agency ruled that, since all CO2 is CO2 from the atmosphere’s point of view, we’ll just treat biogenic and anthropogenic the same for now.
Two forms of resistance have ensued. First, the nerdy one: many scientists and policy makers generally believe that it’s possible to have low-carbon biomass energy, if we can just define it correctly and provide the incentives in policy. Indeed, the distinction between anthropogenic and biogenic carbon has been around for some time in the regulatory community, and even absent any rigor, it appears in several states’ mandatory GHG reporting rules.
Second, the political response: local, state and federal officials in regions with lots of forest biomass seem to know their biomass energy is carbon neutral, and they have fought EPA since the initial ruling. From where I sit in Lane County, Oregon, I’ve seen an overwhelming rush to support biomass energy by our congressional delegation and our local elected officials. The calls have typically focused on the injustice of EPA’s initial ruling, and on jobs; there hasn’t been much focus on asking deeper questions about the long-term carbon consequences of using biomass for energy, and the different circumstances for different feedstocks.
So now, just after the most recent “final” ruling, EPA has backtracked: there will now be a three-year review of the matter. If you’re interested in the politics, see the New Source Review page with EPA’s responses to letter from Western senators and other elected officials. (For example, see this letter from EPA to Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.)
A note for those following the convoluted details: The item under review is the requirement that biomass-powered sources that will increase their emissions by 75,000 MT CO2e would have to address GHGs in the permitting process. Since there’s no carbon cap, carbon pricing of some sort, or other binding requirement in place based on emissions, this does seem like a minor skirmish in a minor battle. My interpretation is that it is all about the perceived slippery slope toward more substantial regulation, including both permitting barriers and an eventual cost of carbon.
How should the Tailoring Rule look? Like the LCFS, with chain of custody.
So now EPA will take three years to figure out how it will do justice to the complexity, danger and opportunity in biomass energy, while remaining politically credible on the topic. I see two potential directions of the effort as essential.
First, copy California Air Resources Board’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard. EPA will have to do better, of course, because CARB has bogged down in precisely that area that is the heart of forest biomass: issues of land use. But still, CARB deserves kudos for the diligent use of life-cycle analysis, thorough use of the existing state of the art, and the relentless pursuit of snapshot-style Lookup Tables with apples-to-apples summary information on different fuel pathways. Is there another path for EPA?
Second, a chain of custody will ensure that energy facilities are held to — and can get credit for — using the right feedstocks. Other than a rewrite of forest practices laws to ensure congruence and enforcement across all states, I see no other way.
Fortunately, those two are doable. We know that because other people have done them already.
Stand by for more on this topic in 2011 and beyond. It will not go away, and in fact we should expect it to become higher stakes.