WASHINGTON - Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt announced Monday that future regulatory actions on biomass from managed forests will be treated as carbon neutral when burned for energy production.
In a memo
, the EPA confirmed that biomass from managed forests can provide many environmental, energy and economic benefits. The memo states that biomass use for energy can bolster domestic energy production, provide jobs to rural communities, and promote environmental stewardship by improving soil and water quality, reducing wildfire risk, and helping to ensure forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
“Today’s announcement grants America’s foresters much-needed certainty and clarity with respect to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass,” said Pruitt. “Managed forests improve air and water quality, while creating valuable jobs and thousands of products that improve our daily lives. This is environmental stewardship in action.”
The announcement saw mixed reactions from scientists and wood product industry professionals.
“Our industry has been asking for this clarification since 2010," said Robert Glowinski, president and CEO of the AWC, who applauded the EPA announcement. "For years, worldwide climate change and renewable energy policies acknowledged that all sustainably-managed biomass energy was ‘carbon neutral.' “We thank EPA for clearing up ambiguous policies with which the industry has been trying to comply. AWC looks forward to working with EPA as these policies are implemented.
Biomass' carbon neutrality is being debated among scientists. Some say such a move could lead to worldwide deforestation and exacerbate climate change and environmental justice issues. Those scientists fear that once a forest is cleared for energy, they may not grow back as anticipated.
“The big problem is you’re cutting old-growth forests and expecting them to regrow,” William Schlesinger, president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and an EPA Science Advisory Board member, told the Washington Post. “That’s totally unrealistic in 20 years and not guaranteed over 100 years.”
MIT, Climate Interactive, and UMass Lowell say substituting coal with wood as a means to generate power could make climate change worse for many decades.
In a joint study, researchers found that wood pellets burned in European and U.K. power plants, such as a British Drax facility—which has transitioned some of its coal power generation capacity to wood pellets with the support of U.K. government subsidies—actually emit more CO2 per kilowatt hour than that generated by coal. Researchers say this is because wood is both less efficient at the point of combustion and has larger processing and supply chain emissions than coal.
Thus, using wood instead of coal in power generation increases the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, worsening climate change until—and only if—the harvested forests regrow.
U.S. forests are a main source for EU wood pellet imports, which have been rising as demand has grown. These forests grow back slowly, so it takes a long time to repay the initial "carbon debt" incurred by burning wood instead of coal, the researchers say. For forests in the central and eastern US, which supply much of the wood used in U.K. power plants, the payback time for this carbon debt ranges from 44 to 104 years, depending on forest type—and assuming the land remains forest. If the land is developed, or converted to agricultural use, then the carbon debt is never repaid and grows over time as the harvested land emits additional carbon from soils.
Benedict McAleenan, Head of Biomass UK, said:
“It’s vitally important to understand how economics and science work together in the real world. In this study, there are highly unlikely scenarios being modeled, which results in worst-case conclusions.
“In the real world – as independently studied over several years by the UK government and others – responsible biomass sourcing is driven by a market that incentivizes best use of forest materials. It works as a hierarchy, with bioenergy at the bottom. This study unfortunately doesn’t model that accurately and jumps to the worst possible outcomes.
Andy Koss, Drax Power CEO said: “The MIT report uses unrealistic scenarios which do not take account of how we source our biomass in real life. The sustainable working forests we source from supply other industries – including construction and furniture making – with high-grade timber. We take the low-grade material to make compressed wood pellets. This includes tree tops, limbs, sawmill residues, misshapen and diseased trees, as well as thinnings - small trees removed to maximize the growth of the forest.
“Since Drax upgraded half of the power station to use biomass, those generating units deliver carbon savings of more than 80% compared to when they used coal. This takes account of our supply chain and is an independently audited figure."