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EPA's Decision Not to Regulate Biomass Carbon Emissions Is Another 'Clean Energy' Smokescreen

Posted: 07/20/11 04:27 PM ET

Under the guise of what EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson described as "renewable, homegrown power," her agency just gave the green light to yet another destructive, unaccountable industry that unnecessarily threatens our climate, forests and health.

Earlier this month, the EPA announced that it will give biomass-burning facilities a three-year reprieve on new federal greenhouse gas regulations while the agency studies the effect of plant emissions on climate change more carefully. Without this exemption, new industrial-scale biomass facilities would have been required to demonstrate that they were using the best available technology to control their greenhouse gas emissions. Under this new ruling, however, they won't need construction permits or Title V operating permits once they are up and running.

"While there is an urgent need to reduce our dependence on coal and foreign oil, burning forests is not the answer," said Danna Smith, Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance, a North-Carolina-based non-profit environmental organization that works with companies and consumers to promote sustainable forestry practices. "It's a major mistake to allow the industrial-scale biomass burning industry to run rampant while evidence mounts that this practice accelerates carbon emissions and destroys forests." Citing insufficient CO2, forest management and smokestack pollution regulations, her organization called on utility companies, investors and governments to halt the further expansion of large-scale bioenergy projects while the EPA studies these issues.

Biomass proponents argue that burning organic materials such as wood is a carbon-neutral process that will have little or no long-term climate impacts because plants naturally release carbon dioxide as they decompose. However, several independent studies have found that biomass combustion can actually produce more greenhouse gases per megawatt of power produced than burning coal. This is because a large amount of carbon that was stored in forest soils and vegetation is released to the atmosphere during the harvesting process, and then additional carbon is released up the smokestack when the trees are burned. Conversely, standing forests serve as carbon sinks because they remove carbon from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis. Thus, logging and burning forests can lead to decades or even centuries of dramatically increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations. In fact, a recent study published in Science concluded that preserving the ability of forests to serve as carbon sinks should be a centerpiece of our overall climate-stabilization strategy.

Of course, in addition to storing carbon, forests provide other critical services, such as protecting our water resources and preventing flooding, providing habitat for wildlife, and supporting the economic health of our rural communities. Unfortunately, our government has largely bought into the "carbon-neutral" biomass argument promoted by this industry and discounted the overall ecological and economic value of intact, standing forests. Consequently, biomass is considered a "renewable energy resource" which electric utilities can include in their legally mandated Renewable Portfolio Standards to qualify for massive government subsidies and earn tradeable carbon credits. Not surprisingly, many are now proposing to construct wood-burning power plants and modify existing coal-fired plants to include wood in their fuel mix.

"The United States already leads the world in the rate of forest cover loss," noted Dogwood's Smith. "We need to reduce rather than accelerate industrial logging, focus on forest protection, and devote more resources to energy efficiency as well as truly clean and renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power."

To learn more about this topic and how you can help, please visit the Dogwood Alliance website.