EPA Opens Huge New Loophole in Carbon Rules

By Joel Finkelstein
Forests & Lands, Political Strategy

As you may have seen, late yesterday EPA released new guidelines for determining how it will treat climate pollution from burning biomass from trees in power plants. It’s a high stakes decision: over 40 years, emissions from burning woody biomass can be 49% greater than burning coal. As such, allowing unlimited burning of trees to generate electricity could open a massive loophole in EPA’s power plant rules that could substantially undermine their effectiveness.

Unfortunately, while EPA recognizes in its statement that burning trees for electricity can produce substantial pollution, and that it should be subject to strong carbon accounting procedures, its actual policy does little to ensure that accurate carbon accounting for biomass will occur. EPA says that states should be able to set standards for “sustainability,” but doesn’t define what amounts to sustainability. That’s a loophole big enough to drive bulldozer through.

EPA can’t just ignore its obligation to accurately measure power plant pollution just because it comes from burning trees.

Background

Groups like North Carolina’s Dogwood Alliance, which works to protect forests in the Southern US where biomass processing is big business, have raised several concerns:

  • There is mounting government and academic research that burning trees for electricity is going to increase carbon emissions and accelerate climate change. In June, over 90 scientists sent a letter to the EPA urging them to follow the best available science in crafting its framework, and EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Board did the same over two years ago. But it doesn’t look like EPA addressed these concerns.
  • Instead, EPA creates a framework based on assessing the sustainability of the source wood – however, they provide no meaningful direction on how sustainability is determined. EPA is legally required to do carbon accounting in setting its standard. Across the American South wood pellet mills are driving forest clearing, including in heritage hunting grounds – the opposite of sustainability.
  • EPA needs to measure the emissions from burning wood for energy if they want to craft meaningful policy to fight climate change.

Our take: EPA’s new framework on carbon emissions from burning wood and other biomass could potentially undermine the Administration’s signature carbon policies, like the Clean Power Plan. There are opportunities to use residues and similar materials in ways that really do reduce emissions. But these guidelines could allow power plants to emit far more pollution than they do now through coal, and get EPA to give them a green seal of approval for it. Like EPA’s own advisory board and dozens of scientists, we think the Obama administration should follow the best possible science.

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On May 12, 2014

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