Industry attempts to undo carbon calculations for biomass in Senate bill

Logs await milling to become wood pellets at a North Carolina facility. (© SELC)

The U.S. Senate is expected, this week, to adopt language in its version of the federal energy bill that would undo years of progress toward recognizing the environmental impacts of the wood pellet industry.

The proposed amendment, championed by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, would require that all branches of federal government view energy produced by burning biomass, like wood pellets, as carbon neutral. This assumption of neutrality allows the planting of young trees to offset the carbon produced by burning more mature ones. Carbon is a major contributor to climate change so governments around the world are looking to devise policies that promote cleaner, less carbon intensive fuels.

While there was some initial excitement about the potential for wood pellets to help move economies away from coal, a closer examination has revealed that biomass fuel sources present their own challenges. One recent study showed that burning wood pellets, especially those manufactured from mature trees, can produce more than four times the carbon caused by burning coal. At least one wood pellet company in the Southeast admitted to using whole trees, which are often logged from wetland forests, rather than the marginal, low quality wood sources originally advertised as the pellet base.

The language in the Senate amendment also is contrary to the approach to biomass laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the Clean Power Plan released last year. There, thanks in part to SELC efforts, the EPA agreed that the carbon impact of biomass energy varies depending on the source, which is a crucial distinction.

While passage of the Collins language could negate the EPA methodology, the language would also need to be adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives but has not yet been introduced.

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