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White House Wisely Rejects the 'Categorical Carbon Neutrality' of Biomass, But What Now?

Jonathan Lewis's picture
Clean Air Task Force

Jonathan Lewis is an attorney and climate specialist with the Clean Air Task Force, where he works with companies, governments, and citizen groups on state, national, and international...

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  • Jun 30, 2015

carbon neutrality

The White House Office of Management and Budget released a Statement of Policy this week detailing the many reasons why President Obama would veto H.R. 2822, a 2016 appropriations bill for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior put together by the Appropriations Committee in the House of Representatives. The White House responded at length because the House bill undermines EPA and DOI’s ability to protect the environment and public health in a variety of ways, and because it targets the Obama Administration’s key environmental priorities, including EPA’s new Clean Water Rule and its proposed Clean Power Plan (CPP).

The CPP sets carbon dioxide standards for coal- and gas-fired power plants, which are the single largest source of CO2 pollution in the United States. According to the White House, “Administration efforts to address … the risk from extreme weather events, wildland fire, poor air quality, global instability, accelerated environmental degradation, and illnesses transmitted by food, water, and disease” attributable to power sector CO2 emissions would be “derail[ed]” by a funding restriction in the appropriations bill that prohibits EPA from implementing the CPP.

The approps bill also attempts to legislate science by forcing EPA to treat biomass-based power production as a “carbon neutral” phenomenon, irrespective of what actual research shows:

The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency shall base agency policies and actions regarding air emissions from forest biomass including, but not limited to, air emissions from facilities that combust forest biomass for energy, on the principle that forest biomass emissions do not increase overall carbon dioxide accumulations in the atmosphere when USDA Forest Inventory and Analysis data show that forest carbon stocks in the U.S. are stable or increasing on a national scale, or when forest biomass is derived from mill residuals, harvest residuals or forest management activities. Such policies and actions shall not pre-empt existing authorities of States to determine how to utilize biomass as a renewable energy source and shall not inhibit States’ authority to apply the same policies to forest biomass as other renewable fuels in implementing Federal law.

A bill containing similar language has been introduced in the Senate by Angus King of Maine. The House and the Senate bills cite “the principle”—more of an incantation, actually—that burning trees in power plants cannot increase atmospheric concentrations of CO2 as long as the overall growth rate of US forests exceeds the rate at which they’re being harvested. But scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that burning biomass does increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations. When a power plant burns woody biomass, it emits more CO2 per kilowatt generated than it would if it were burning coal instead. Biomass proponents argue that the CO2 is reabsorbed as the harvested forest regrows, but aside from being highly uncertain, the regrowth process takes many decades—during which time the additional CO2 emissions causes additional warming. Furthermore, by harvesting US forests for fuel, the biomass power industry is reducing the size and the effectiveness of a critically important carbon sink. The current expansion of US forests is a bit of good news in the otherwise dreary climate story; instead of pursuing policies that would slow the rate of new forest growth, we should be pursuing opportunities to preserve and enhance that expansion.

The White House’s reaction to the carbon neutrality provision was strong, coherent, and a little surprising:

Classification of Forest Biomass Fuels as Carbon-Neutral. The Administration objects to the bill’s representation of forest biomass as categorically “carbon-neutral.” This language conflicts with existing EPA policies on biogenic CO2 and interferes with the position of States that do not apply the same policies to forest biomass as other renewable fuels like solar or wind. This language stands in contradiction to a wide-ranging consensus on policies and best available science from EPA’s own independent Science Advisory Board, numerous technical studies, many States, and various other stakeholders.

The White House’s clearly stated opposition to the carbon neutrality provision in the approps bill stands in stark contrast to previous statements by officials at EPA and the Department of Agriculture. Some of the previous statements, like those in the preamble to the proposed CPP, have been vague and confusing. Others have been more specific, including a November 2014 memorandum signed by EPA Assistant Administrator Janet McCabe stating that the Agency would approve CPP implementation plans that purport to achieve emissions reductions by ignoring the CO2 emitted from power plants that burn “sustainably-derived” biomass. Sustainability is a concept that means many things to many people, but, as CATF and other organizations have shown, none of the major sustainable forestry certification regimes are designed to reduce the amount of CO2 that would be emitted when certified biomass is used to make energy. “The fact that a regulated EGU burns only ‘sustainably-derived feedstocks’ says very little, if anything, about the amount of biogenic CO2 emitted by the source or the net effect of those emissions on atmospheric carbon loading,” we wrote in December 2014 comments to EPA. The McCabe Memo left the term “sustainably-derived” undefined, and EPA has not offered any clarification since.

All of which makes the Administration’s clear and cogent response to the carbon neutrality provision in the approps bill so welcome (not to mention unexpected). The statement’s forceful refutation of categorical carbon neutrality is unquestionably the scientifically correct approach, as is the plan to rely on the analysis of biomass power’s climate impacts being developed by a panel of experts under the auspices of EPA’s Science Advisory Board. It is too early to know whether the Administration’s recent statement signals a renewed commitment to science-driven regulation of industrial-scale biomass combustion, but it does beg the question of how much weight should be given to the vague and unsupported language found in EPA’s proposed CPP and the November 2014 McCabe Memo. For example:

  • The Statement of Policy acknowledges that biomass is not inherently carbon neutral, which means that EPA cannot rely simplistic references to the carbon cycle when it decides how to regulate biomass combustion under the CPP. Instead, the Agency will have to draw distinctions and then, as required by both the Clean Air Act and basic tenets of administrative law, provide a reasonable justification for those distinctions.
  • The Statement says the provision in the appropriations bill treats biomass as “categorically carbon neutral”—but that is not exactly true, at least not in the most precise sense. The House bill, like Senator King’s bill, would treat biomass as carbon neutral if USDA data show that growth exceeds harvest, or if the biomass is derived from mill residuals, harvest residuals, or forest management activities. Those criteria are so weak to be almost meaningless—but they track most observers’ understanding of the distinction that the November 2014 McCabe Memo attempts to draw between “sustainably-derived” biomass and other kinds of biomass. So if the White House opposes the approps bill’s “categorical” approach, as it should, it must also abandon the similarly bereft approach laid out in the Memo.
  • The Statement offers a nod of approval to Massachusetts and other states that differentiate between biomass and non-emitting renewable energy technologies like wind and solar. If the Administration supports Massachusetts’s approach to biomass, which is based on the most detailed analysis to-date of the lifecycle carbon emissions from a state’s biomass power sector, then EPA must require other states to justify contradictory positions (especially assertions of carbon neutrality) to the extent those positions affect the implementation of the CPP and other federal policies.
  • Finally, as the White House statement points out, the carbon neutrality provision in the appropriations bill “stands in contradiction” to the “best available science from EPA’s own independent Science Advisory Board.” The Administration’s endorsement of the Science Advisory Board process is significant, in part because of the increasingly problematic relationship between the panel of experts convened by the Board and EPA’s treatment of biomass combustion under the CPP. The panel has raised a series of concerns about EPA’s draft “Framework for Assessing Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources,” ranging from substantive critiques (g., following its initial review of the Framework in 2011, the panel told EPA that accurate emissions accounting necessitates comparisons to counterfactual scenarios) to procedural complaints (e.g., panelists have complained that EPA’s request for highly generalized feedback on the revised 2014 version of the Framework, which is essentially a catalog of different accounting approaches, would turn the review process into little more than an “academic exercise”). The reference to the Science Advisory Board process in the Administration’s recent statement on the House approps bill could signal that EPA’s development and implementation of the CPP will lean more heavily on scientifically justified methods of emissions accounting.

In a letter delivered earlier this week to the Office of Management and Budget concerning the role of biomass combustion in the CPP, CATF and other environmental organizations highlighted many of the same concerns that underpin the Administration’s opposition to the carbon neutrality provision in the House appropriations bill. Our conclusion, based on those concerns and the requirements of the Clean Air Act, is that the “emission reductions typically attributed to power plants that burn biomass are therefore uncertain, speculative, and dislocated, and cannot be relied upon for the purpose of CPP compliance.” We’re hopeful the Administration’s recent statement on carbon neutrality signals a step in that same direction.

Photo Credit: Carbon Neutrality and Biomass/shutterstock

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Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jul 1, 2015

Excellent news. “Sustainably-derived” is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Jul 1, 2015

It’s not clear to me what all the fuss is about. I’m sure there are stakeholders on both sides who have an interest in the issue, but to me it all seems rather small potatoes.

The carbon in biomass comes from the atmosphere. Burning biomass does not transfer carbon from fossil reserves to the atmosphere. Whether it reduces the carbon inventory in standing biomass is a relevant issue, but the amount of carbon at issue is miniscule compared to the amount released in combustion of fossil fuels.

The carbon cycle effects of using biomass for fuel will depend on how and where the biomass is grown. If it’s a matter of converting land previously in annual crops to wood plantations, then there will be a net increase in standing carbon. Agricultural land in annual crops generally has a low specific carbon inventory — much lower than a working tree plantation. OTOH, if it’s a matter of stripping existing forest land for fuel and leaving open pasture behind, then there’s a clear, substantial reduction in standing biomass. I don’t see much room for dispute there. Any dispute presumably centers on the murky notion of “sustainable harvesting” of existing forests. I suspect that the any associated changes in the net reservoir will tend to be small.

The more interesting issues that I see around biomass are scalability, displacement of food crops, energy storage for intermittent renewables, feedstock for renewable liquid fuels (for applications where electrification isn’t a feasible option), and removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. Lots to wrangle about in those issues, without getting into the finer points of how to define “carbon neutral”.

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jul 1, 2015

misplaced comment

Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jul 1, 2015

“OTOH, if it’s a matter of stripping existing forest land for fuel and leaving open pasture behind, then there’s a clear, substantial reduction in standing biomass. I don’t see much room for dispute there.”

And that is the objective of the House proposal … to legislate that stripping of existing forest land for fuel is a carbon neutral energy source.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Jul 1, 2015


As is pointed out in the article, if you cut down trees and burn them, you get a spike in CO2 emissions, as the trees take decades to grow back. That would happen just as the U.S. is committing to international agreeements to reduce CO2.

Also, it  takes a lot of diesel fuel for very heavy equipment to clear roads, harvest trees, and truck them out of the forest, and a lot of gasoline for work crews in pickups going to and from the job site.

And if you don’t want to build logging roads, which can do a lot of damage to soil and streams, logs are often removed by helicopter, which really burns a lot of fuel.

With coal, the railroads are basically long, low-friction conveyor belts to the utilities.



J Elliott's picture
J Elliott on Jul 2, 2015


Between the recent droughts and the massive invasion of bark beetles the U.S. has many 10’s of millions of acres of dead forests that have and will continue to burn uncontrollably in the near future.  Why hasn’t the Administration and the Federal Government Agencies done their job and managed/removed this source of biomass or biofuels rather than waiting until the next massive fires continue that put Fire Fighters and local Residents at considerable risk?  Harvesting the huge volume/mass of existing dead wood and converting it into fire wood & wood pellet fuels will have a much greater beneficial impact on the U.S. than arguing the politics of these recent Congress bills.  We should not continue to allow the USDA/FS to negligently continue to do nothing towards reasonably managing U.S. forests, and, to the real and potential benefits for the environment, Resident’s safety & health and potentially the climate.


Bruce McFarling's picture
Bruce McFarling on Jul 3, 2015

We should not continue to allow the USDA/FS to negligently continue to do nothing towards reasonably managing U.S. forests, and, to the real and potential benefits for the environment, Resident’s safety & health and potentially the climate. …”

Its Congressional action, both in granting power to take an action to an agency and in funding the action, that decides the scope of what an agency does … Administrative action is supposed to be within that scope laid down by Congress. After all, that was the argument in the mercury emissions case … that the action was taken under a title of the Clean Air Act where the economic trade-off should have been considered.

If the Congress is presently focused on handing a financial windfall to companies with timber rights, it seems unlikely to undermine the market value of that windfall by directing the USDA/FS to remove those dead trees for biofuel, along with funding replanting of trees not susceptible to the beatles in the affected areas.


Simon Friedrich's picture
Simon Friedrich on Jul 10, 2015

The OMB statement in opposition to considering the Classification of Forest Biomass Fuels as Carbon-Neutral is a step forward in the global need to count greenhouse gas emissions resulting from biofuel combustion.  These are normally omitted from emission estimates. It should influence other governments, agencies and organizations to recognize that the biofuels carbon neutral king has no clothes.

In the past both EPA and EIA have chosen not to show greenhouse gases resulting from the combustion of biofuels. Are these now to be shown in the annual estimates of greenhouse gas emissions? 


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