EPA Proposes Final Guidance for Counting Carbon Emissions from Wood-burning Power Plants: Admits They Degrade Climate, Then Ignores Science

Statement on EPA’s carbon accounting framework by Mary Booth, Director, PFPI

November 19, 2014.  Pelham, MA.

Today EPA released a revised draft framework for counting greenhouse gas emissions from biomass energy.  While power plants that burn wood and other biological materials instead of fossil fuels actually emit more CO2 than coal-fired plants on a day-to-day basis, treatment of biomass energy as renewable energy has been based on the idea that these CO2 emissions can be ignored as not contributing to climate change.  No more.  EPA’s proposed framework clearly acknowledges biomass energy emits greenhouse gases, and that accounting for bioenergy emissions requires assessing all the impacts that biomass harvesting can have on ecosystems, including the length of time it takes to grow back trees that have been harvested for fuel.  As the framework admits, biomass power plants can act as net sources of CO2 to the atmosphere for decades, increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and driving climate change.

Unfortunately, a memo accompanying the accounting framework from EPA’s Acting Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation Janet McCabe demonstrates that EPA has decided to ignore the science-based approach attempted in the framework, proposing to exempt whole classes of biomass fuels from regulation despite the agency’s own analysis that such fuels can be large sources of CO2.  The memo indicates that “waste-derived” biomass and certain forest-derived “industrial products” will likely be exempted from regulation, and possibly “sustainably harvested” forest wood, as well.

While certain biomass materials, such as wastes from the pulp and paper industry, are less likely to increase emissions when burned for fuel, there is no basis for assuming “sustainably” harvested forest materials have zero carbon emissions.  Indeed, “sustainably” harvested forests are being cut and burned around the planet, moving millions of tons of carbon from trees into the atmosphere each year.

EPA is asking the country to back the Clean Power Plan as a way to reduce CO2 emissions from the power sector, but Assistant Administrator McCabe’s directive overriding the framework proposed by EPA’s own scientists promotes biomass energy that will make emissions worse.  By EPA’s own accounting, biomass power plants emitted about 78 million tons of CO2 in 2012, equivalent to the entire power sector emissions of 13 states and Washington DC (VT, DC, ID,  SD, RI, ME, NH, AK, DE, WA, OR, HI, CT, MA) as reported by the Energy Information Administration.  There’s little doubt that the vast majority of the biomass plants responsible for these massive emissions would claim they’re just burning waste products, or “sustainably harvested” forest wood, the categories Administrator McCabe has proposed to exempt from regulation.  Many Americans understand the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and want EPA’s Clean Power Plan to succeed.  EPA should not promote burning of forest wood, which not only emits more CO2 than coal at the stack but reduces carbon storage in forests, as a means of “reducing” power sector emissions, because to do so will increase emissions, invisibly, at great cost.

Partnership for Policy Integrity