EPA puts at risk Oregon biomass

EPA puts at risk Oregon biomass
By Thomas McLain
Oregon State University professor

The Environmental Protection Agency recently adopted new rules that have the potential to quash Oregon’s efforts to create renewable energy from biomass. Unless changed, next January the EPA will consider the emissions from burning biomass to be the same as burning coal and other fossil fuels. This decision will raise the cost of biomass energy conversion and eliminate most of the economic incentive to convert wood and agriculture waste materials to renewable energy. This is counter to our country’s renewable energy and climate mitigation goals and contrary to good science. Along with 100 other scientists, I recently expressed concern about this decision with members of Congress. Here are some of the key issues.

The carbon dioxide released from the combustion or decay of woody biomass is part of the global cycle of biogenic carbon and does not increase the amount of carbon in circulation. In contrast, carbon dioxide released from fossil fuels increases the amount of carbon in the cycle. The carbon released from burning fossil fuels has been long considered by scientists as separate from the global carbon cycle and adds to the total amount of carbon in active circulation between the atmosphere and biosphere. In contrast, the CO2 released from burning woody biomass is part of the “biogenic” carbon cycle where plants absorb CO2 as they grow and release carbon dioxide as they decay or are burned. This cycle releases no new carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is why it is sometimes termed “carbon neutral.” True neutrality is a little more complicated in practice and depends on a number of factors. This complexity can result in public confusion.

Nevertheless, there are two key points that make the EPA decision inconsistent with science and policy. First, while there is no difference between the CO2 from burning fossil fuels or biomass in terms of greenhouse gases, there is a big difference between their sources. Burning coal releases carbon that has been long buried underground. Burning woody biomass recycles renewable plant growth in a sustainable biological system as long as biomass is re-grown at the same rate it is consumed. Sustainable forest management in the US has ensured a stable or growing source of woody biomass within our country for years–especially in Oregon where the source of biomass for fuel is low-value residue and trees with little commercial value. The second key point is the net effect of replacing energy derived from fossil fuel with that from biomass. Avoiding or offsetting fossil fuel emissions has a major impact on net greenhouse gas emissions over time.

Forests are our nation’s primary source of renewable materials and second largest source of renewable energy after hydropower. Sustainable development of new and traditional uses of our forests can help reduce GHG emissions and can provide economic incentives for keeping lands in forests and reducing the motivation for land conversion. In Oregon, the potential for new jobs in rural areas is especially great.

All energy sources have limitations and impacts. The US Departments of Agriculture and Energy are currently supporting over $100 million of research and demonstration projects designed to advance the use of renewable biomass energy and to better understand the limitations and opportunities that bioenergy presents. The EPA decision will negate much of that investment with little apparent regard for science or for their established inventory methods. Unless reconsidered, this decision will also impede rural economic development in Oregon and slow our nation’s progress toward energy independence and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Thomas McLain is an Oregon State University professor of wood science and engineering.

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