The debate about how to view energy from forest biomass sources has raged for more than a decade. Pro industry groups contend it will improve forestry management and ecology while having a neutral long-term impact on carbon levels. Preservationists and green groups suggest that it could lead to short-term emission gains as well as encourage timber harvesting in areas that need to be protected. Under the Trump administration, a new tone is being struck. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt indicted in April that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that future regulatory actions on biomass from managed forests will be treated as carbon neutral when used for energy production at stationary sources. The EPA will also be assessing options for incorporating non-forest biomass as carbon neutral into future actions.
EPA Administrator Pruitt explained that this announcement grants America’s foresters much-needed certainty and clarity with respect to the carbon neutrality of forest biomass. He added, “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.”
Pruitt made this announcement while planting trees and speaking on proper environmental stewardship at a Georgia elementary school in April. His announcement followed an earlier letter to New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu spelling out that future EPA decisions under the Trump administration would work towards a carbon neutral policy for woody biomass.
The EPA stated in a press release, “The use of biomass from managed forests 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 our forests continue to remove carbon from the atmosphere. This policy will provide certainty to rural communities and the forest industry while supporting economic growth.”
Categorizing woody biomass as carbon neutral has been controversial for a number of years with preservationist groups, scientists, industry, lawmakers and other experts unable to reach a consensus. The primary assertion for carbon neutrality is that carbon released when trees are cut down and burned is absorbed again when new tree growth takes its place thereby limiting total carbon in the atmosphere.
Some environmental and preservationist groups counter that the act of burning trees and wood biomass releases carbon emissions that will not be absorbed for decades. They also continue to push for other alternatives, such as wind and solar power. One concern is that global acceptance for wood energy will lead to a logging boom of older trees just to produce energy. Or that there is no guarantee that future land management decisions will allow forests to regrow versus being converted into other uses.
However, the industry contends that using wood biomass provides a number of major benefits, such as reducing forest fuel loads, providing much needed market for wood waste and scrap material, creating economic incentive to plant more trees, encouraging properly managed forests, providing rural jobs and more.
Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, commented, “This new EPA policy is an important milestone in implementing the Congressional directive to produce clear and simple policies and acknowledges the scientific record on the carbon neutrality of forest-based, renewable biomass.”
“Policy uncertainty means uncertain investment in the future of our forests. When policy limits markets, it puts economic pressure on forest owners. That not only threatens jobs, but it also puts our forests at risk, jeopardizing our water, our air and our wildlife,” said CEO of National Alliance of Forest Owners Dave Tenny.
“The Agency’s recognition of biomass as a renewable, carbon neutral source of energy will maintain and enhance markets for small-diameter trees, which encourages landowners to invest in forest health, and ultimately, to keep their land in trees,” said Andres Villegas, president and CEO of the Georgia Forestry Association.
Green groups decry the decision as selling out the environment. In response, Sierra Club Climate Policy Director Liz Perera stated, “Once again, Scott Pruitt is wrong. Biomass is not carbon neutral and never will be. Burning trees for energy will only worsen pollution, exacerbate climate change, and harm public health. Scott Pruitt can’t take a step without either making a mockery of science or being embroiled in another scandal.”
The EPA has insisted that its policy changes will follow existing laws and scientific standards. While Pruitt intends to rewrite EPA’s clean air and power industry regulations, the agency has yet to specify a timetable or what the final rules may look like. Also, many of the related issues and energy products have been tied up in longrunning court battles that aren’t likely to be resolved anytime soon. Thus, the industry should not expect wholesale changes in real-world policy in the immediate future. The EPA released a memo to further clarify the policy directive issued by Pruitt.
Biomass magazine wrote, “The memo specifies that the EPA’s ongoing work under the Renewable Fuel Standard and Title II will not be impacted by this new policy and will continue to be governed by the existing regulatory and statutory process and requirements already in place. The memo also indicates this statement of agency policy is not a scientific determination and does not revise or amend any scientific determinations that EPA has previously made.”
The EPA’s Science Advisory Board has yet to issue a policy statement on woody biomass and carbon neutrality. However, the board has made it clear in the past that it was not scientifically valid to assume all feedstocks are carbon neutral.
The Pruitt announcement is a step in the right direction for those looking for new markets for woody biomass and better forest management. But it is far from a complete victory considering the fight that lays ahead with preservationist groups bent on labeling wood energy as bad for the environment.