EPA, White House Signal Support for Biomass

On June 2, U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy unveiled the Obama administration’s highly anticipated Section 111(d) carbon emission reduction rules for existing power plants. The Biomass Power Association was watching this announcement carefully.
By Bob Cleaves | June 25, 2014

On June 2, U.S. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy unveiled the Obama administration’s highly anticipated Section 111(d) carbon emission reduction rules for existing power plants. The Biomass Power Association was watching this announcement carefully, as it marks the first of a series of EPA rules due out this summer that will have a big impact on the biomass industry.

After reviewing the proposed rules, our reaction is cautiously optimistic.

The 645-page proposal, known as the Clean Power Plan, leaves it mostly to individual states to design their own carbon reduction strategies that, when combined, will create a 30 percent overall reduction of carbon emissions from existing power plants by the year 2030. The landmark plan sets what are, in effect, the first national renewable energy targets that have been implemented as a response to climate change. While the rules are controversial and will be debated throughout the 2014 campaign season, they represent a significant shift in energy policy that will undeniably benefit renewable energy sources.

 This includes biomass. The framework specifically mentions biomass several times in a positive light, in one place stating, “Burning biomass-derived fuels for energy recovery can yield climate benefits as compared to burning conventional fossil fuels.”

 The Clean Power Plan closely follows the National Climate Assessment released in May by the White House, which contained a chapter on bioenergy that was also very supportive of biomass. The report recognized bioenergy as “one component of an overall bioenergy strategy to reduce emissions of carbon from fossil fuel, while also improving water quality, and maintaining lands for timber production as an alternative to other socioeconomic option.” Critically, the report noted the role of biomass in keeping forests healthy enough to continue to serve as a carbon “sink” that can capture hundreds of millions of tons of carbon per year. It also observed that bioenergy has the potential of displacing a not insignificant 30 percent of the nation’s current U.S. petroleum consumption.

 Based on these signs, it appears that the administration foresees a continued and expanding role for bioenergy in our nation’s energy mix. However, one question looms large. For the nation to fully embrace biomass, the EPA’s Tailoring Rule decision becomes even more crucial. Biomass will need to be recognized under the Clean Air Act as a renewable source of energy with a favorable carbon profile when compared to fossil fuels.

It will be extremely tough to meet the ambitious new carbon reduction targets without biomass as an option for forested states looking to add a baseload, renewable source of energy. It will be even harder to keep forested lands maintained and at a lower risk of wildfire without our industry, as the USDA is well aware.

While we are not out of the proverbial woods yet, we have good reason to be encouraged by the recent signals from the White House and the EPA.

Author: Bob Cleaves
President and CEO, Biomass Power Association


4 Responses

  1. Josh Schlossberg



    Listen...we will definitely choose to "agree to disagree" in regards to most of what is printed in this trade industry journal, and usually I just read it all with a smile, knowing it wouldn't be worth my time to engage (especially since I'd be ignored if I did). However, the piece I want to address is how time and time again the biomass industry talks about preventing wildfire from logging, while ignoring many key questions about this dubious assertion... Including: 1) What studies have shown that logging can decrease the risk of large wildfires, which are almost entirely driven by drought and wind? 2) Even if it was possible to prevent the smaller wildfires--I'm skeptical that it typically is, as logging dries a forest and allows more wind in--why would you want to stop that ecologically essential process?

  2. Carl Morrow



    Mr. Schlossberg, A healthy skepticism is a critical component of scientific inquiry. It could be argued that the Western model for scientific research is predicated on finding faults and cracks within previously advanced theories. In this manner, skepticism drives the advancement of knowledge. When that skepticism retards the assessment of new or existing information, it transforms from a tool for discovery to a blanket for punditry. In response to question #1: It is unclear what you mean by "logging", but fuels reduction treatments, including the removal of commercially usable trees, seem to reduce fire severity and spread in some cases. I would suggest: "Fuel treatment effectiveness in California yellow pine and mixed conifer forests"- DOI: 10.1016/j.foreco.2012.02.013 as an example of a recent article that assesses the efficacy of fuel treatment for reducing fire severity over multiple fires in the arid western US. I would also recommend perusing the sources cited in this paper. These treatments cannot eliminate all large fires, because, as you mentioned, there are other factors at work such as fuel-moisture, terrain, and weather. An important driving factor for fire you have omitted is fuel. We cannot control the weather or terrain, but we can reduce or alter the amount and distribution of fuel. Fuel is essentially the only thing we can manipulate at this point. In response to question #2: Only a zealot would argue that all fires are good or bad. All fires produce a mixture of costs and benefits(including financial, environmental, cultural, etc), and the ultimate answer must lie somewhere between fighting/preventing all fires and watching them all burn. We would like to reduce the incidence of fires in which the costs outweigh the benefits. I would respond to your question with the following: Why wouldn't you want to prevent large fires near houses or cities? Why wouldn't you want to prevent large fires in critical watersheds or ecosystems not adapted for them? Why wouldn't you want to reduce the proportion of energy that comes from fossil fuels?

  3. Richard Rodriguez CPA



    Since President Obama issued through EPA direction the end to coal plants biomass as a co-firing technique looms on the horizon IMO. No one believes biomass can stand alone without multiple uses especially C4 grasses aka perennial grass feedstocks. They are coming into their own and for many dedicated biomass plants they can compete better then solar or wind alternatives. There are multiple uses IMO for these feedstocks. Not to fool ourselves though the equation is complicated by land, transportation costs and of course large capital outlays for conversion or new plants but almost any future is better without fossil fuels!

  4. Realist



    The most obvious benefit to the combustion of secondary materials from industries such as forest products and agriculture is that these found resouces are "available". The technology to efficiently burn these resources for energy is being developed as a result and all is well. Biomass includes coal and any refutation of this point is only rooted in political science. If a company can create a coal-like product without millions of years of natural earth-processing, they deserve to rule the energy world. However, biomass from our trees and grasses or bamboo is at a distinct disadvantage to coal when we are evaluating the heat produced vs effluent pollutants produced. The Obama administration had alteady "settled" this discrepancy by announcing that plants using coal would be forced to use carbon capture systems that woody biomass should have exemption from. Why? Why is biomass carbon not causing climate change? Because the emperor has woven a fantastic suit of lies about the circular effect of carbon "sinks" that somehow mitigate the pollutive effects. This is no less true for coal as the plant matter that has been reduced to coal also taken CO2 from the atmosphere and stored it underground. Claims that woody biomass is somehow superior fuel to coal are faulty as both produce a potentially harmful quantity of pollution and both should only be utilized inside controlled plant situations where pollution can be captured to the maximum extent possible. The real value of adding biomass into the fuel mix with fossil fuels is that we can mitigate other pollutants from waste that is not currently utilized for energy. By utilizing sewage sludge, food processing, and agriculture waste to generate electricity are fantastic ideas because of the mitigation of methatne that would naturally result from allowing them to rot. Construction and demolition debris, paper waste and old utility poles and RR ties that are used for energy also fill this need for the recovery of recources and amount to very effective "capture" of their energy potential that is also lost when allowed to rot. The EPA has created regulatory pathways that allow for much-needed development of biomass programs that access these found resources but has also attempted to invoke almost religious control of the climate theories that strangle the legitamate debate of these issues. Focus on the facts, we NEED energy, we need clean systems that produce it. What we do not need is political science to infect engineering efforts and slant systems evaluation, or the idiotic assertion that the only forests we need to maintain are for "carbon sinks".


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