The cause for biomass as a carbon-neutral renewable resource has received an important endorsement. Last week, Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Angus King (I-ME) received unanimous consent for their sponsored amendment to the Senate energy bill that affirms the carbon benefits of biomass. The Senate is currently debating a broad energy policy bill, the first in almost a decade, which will have important implications for biomass as an energy source in the future.
The amendment (written by Collins) would require federal agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Energy (DOE) to recognize energy derived from forest biomass as carbon neutral. This is an extremely significant label, especially as EPA begins to implement President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) that will require individual states to comply with its carbon-reduction standards.
Sen. King has (correctly) stated that biomass plants burn wood fuel that would not otherwise be utilized by the forest products industry, clarifying, “The kind of thing that otherwise lies on the forest floor, dies and decays and releases carbon. There is no net addition of carbon.” He continued, “Now to be intellectually honest you have to say that burning it releases that carbon somewhat sooner than it would be otherwise released. But in the overall term we’re talking about a renewable resource.”
The announcement was welcomed news to many forest products industry organizations. National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) President and CEO Dave Tenny stated, “Forest owners deeply appreciate the leadership of Senators Collins, Klobuchar and King to emphasize the carbon benefits of biomass energy as part of our nation’s renewable energy solution. This amendment reflects the bipartisan support of 46 Senators who signed a June 2015 letter to the Administration affirming the carbon neutrality of forest biomass. It will help drive a consistent federal policy across all departments and agencies based on well-established science and agency expertise.”
Tenny continued by noting that the federal agencies above will have “…to jointly establish clear and simple policies for the utilization of forest biomass, including:
- Reflecting the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy
- Recognizing biomass as a renewable energy source
- Encouraging private investment throughout the biomass supply chain, including working forests, harvesting operations, forest improvement operations, bioenergy, wood products and paper manufacturing
- Encouraging forest management to improve forest health
- Recognizing state initiatives to use biomass
Climate science consistently and clearly documents the carbon benefits of forest biomass energy. U.S. government data shows that the volume of growing trees in the U.S has increased by 50% since 1953. Net growth in U.S. forests absorbs 13% of annual CO2 emissions.” Forest2Market has also repeatedly made the case for the carbon neutrality of forest biomass when managed properly.
Some environmental groups, including the national Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), are in opposition to the amendment. NRDC scientist Sami Yassa recently noted on his blog, “While the final CPP states that biomass is not categorically carbon neutral - rejecting Congressional and industry pressure to give all biomass a free pass - it does leave open the option for states and regulated entities to gain credits for ‘qualified biomass,’ defined by the agency as a biomass feedstock that is demonstrated as a method to control increases of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.”
Yassa continued, “Currently biomass markets are heading in the wrong direction: industrial-scale production of wood pellets, almost all of which occurs in the U.S. South is growing at an exponential rate. These exports are driven by the demand of European utilities whose use of biomass is supported by generous EU renewable energy policies that view all biomass as ‘carbon-neutral,’ an assumption that is fundamentally flawed. If the EPA does not follow through and exclude forest-derived biomass, then we risk repeating the perverse mistake made in Europe: where utilities are rewarded for using fuels that increase carbon emissions. The EPA has an opportunity to show tremendous leadership on this issue. The line begins with the forest.”
While a recent Forest2Market study definitively shows that the US wood pellet industry is no threat to southern forests (nor is it growing at an “exponential” rate), the facts do not prevent anti-forestry organizations from raising a flag of alarmism. Despite the NRDC’s opinion noted above, the fact remains that forest biomass is a sustainable, renewable resource that is currently helping many European markets to expand their energy portfolios. The very basis of the CPP is to help America expand its own energy portfolio with the goal of reducing carbon emissions from coal. Forest biomass can, and should, play an important role as a clean, renewable energy source in that expansion process.
An amendment to an energy bill that would define forest biomass as carbon neutral would provide an extremely important designation for the feedstock in two primary ways:
- It would improve the marketability of forest biomass as a viable energy source in the future. Adding a degree of certainty to the market would drive new investment in the sector and provide the forest products supply chain—including landowners, suppliers and processors—with continued opportunities for profitable growth.
- It would clear the way for electricity generators in many states to confidently utilize forest residues as developments from CPP become more concrete.
The carbon-neutral classification for forest biomass is long overdue, and Sens. Collins, Klobuchar and King deserve credit for standing firm in their sponsored amendment to the Senate energy bill. As Dave Tenny notes, “These common sense ideas provide precisely the clarity lacking in federal policy for far too long. They are supported by well-established science, tap the combined expertise of the right federal agencies and provide forest owners, bioenergy producers and states positive signals they need to move forward with confidence.”