EPA rears up, acknowledges co-firing biomass with coal increases GHG emissions

The Trump EPA killed the Obama Clean Power Plan (CPP) and with it, any hope (for now) of using this federal program to drive replacement of polluting fossil fuels with wind and solar. However, there is one silver lining: EPA’s focus on power plant efficiency has forced the agency to clearly acknowledge that co-firing biomass with coal degrades power plant efficiency and increases emissions.

The Trump replacement for the CPP, the just-issued final version of the Affordable Clean Energy Rule (ACE), focuses on adjustments that can be made to power plants themselves as the “best system of emissions reduction” (BSER), eliminating “outside the fenceline” alternatives. However, options to reduce emissions from fossil-fueled plants are limited, mostly consisting of technological fiddles such as increasing plant efficiency, i.e., the amount of power that can be generated from a given amount of fuel.  Co-firing biomass with coal has the opposite effect.

EPA’s statement in the ACE cuts through a lot of clutter:

“biomass firing in and of itself does not reduce emissions of CO2 emitted from that source. Specifically, when measuring stack emissions, combustion of biomass emits more mass of emissions per Btu than that from combustion of fossil fuels, thereby increasing CO2 emissions at the source. Recognition of any potential CO2 emissions reductions associated with biomass utilization at a designated facility relies on accounting for activities not applied at and largely not under the control of that source, including consideration of offsite terrestrial carbon effects during biomass fuel growth, which are not a measure of emissions performance at the level of the individual designated facility. Use of biomass in affected units is therefore not consistent with the plain meaning of “standard of performance” and cannot be considered as part of the BSER.”

 

The EPA statement reinforces the commonsense conclusion of environmental groups – that increased CO2 emissions from biomass combustion means that any claimed “reduction” in emissions from burning biomass depends on emissions being offset by forest regrowth, and such regrowth takes decades.

EPA’s acknowledgement of the physics of biomass combustion contradicts its recent legislatively-dictated policy treating biomass as carbon neutral. Legislation written by the biomass industry and aggressively pursued by Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, among others, forced EPA and other agencies to adopt an official stance that burning forest wood is carbon neutral. EPA’s resulting statement indeed declared that “EPA’s policy in forthcoming regulatory actions will be to treat biogenic CO2 emissions resulting from the combustion of biomass from managed forests at stationary sources for energy production as carbon neutral.”

There may be a few scientists left at EPA who think this policy is as silly as we do, because the language in ACE pointing out that co-firing biomass increases emissions is exceptionally clear.  With a few additional statements in the ACE on how biomass co-firing is not cost-effective, nor a widespread option, does the agency’s anti-biomass position in ACE constitute a minor declaration of independence from meddling lawmakers who want to legislate science? We’ll take it, if so.

Partnership for Policy Integrity