Biomass Rule Bad News for Southern Forests, Undercuts Climate Change Efforts

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in its overall effort to rein in heat-trapping greenhouse gases, took a major step backwards today with a final decision to ignore carbon pollution from biomass-burning plants for at least three years. EPA's final ruling means that any biomass facilities permitted over the next three years will be exempt, even if the agency decides to limit biomass carbon emissions after further study.

The ruling is particularly important for the South, the 'fiber basket of the nation,' where utilities and independent power producers are moving briskly forward with dozens of large wood-fired power plants and re-purposed power plants.  Virginia's largest power producer, Dominion Virginia, just announced the conversion of three coal-fired power plants to biomass-burning plants.  The company already operates one  biomass plant and plans to co-fire biomass at a coal-fired plant under construction.

In SELC's six-state region (AL, GA, NC, SC, TN, VA), the local demand from existing and proposed plants for wood fuel could easily outstrip the supply of available wood waste, meaning the facilities will need standing trees to meet the demand.  Scientific research consistently suggests that cutting down trees wholesale and burning them for energy on an industrial scale produces more carbon pollution than allowing living forests to continue to absorb and store carbon.

Following is a statement from Frank Rambo:

"While biomass must be a part of an overall diverse portfolio of new energy sources in the U.S. for a cleaner, more sustainable power supply, all biomass is not equal. Biomass operations must be accountable for the carbon pollution that comes out of their smokestacks.  This rule exempts them from any such accountability. 

"EPA's action is irresponsible given that the vast majority of climate scientists agree that the next few decades are critical in shrinking our carbon footprint.  A free pass on carbon emissions now means that facilities coming online in the next few years will rely on standing trees for decades to come undermining many other efforts to combat climate change.

"This rule casts a shadow over the Southeast's forests which are vulnerable to the burgeoning biomass industry's need for fuel to generate heat and electricity here and overseas."

View a map showing the growth of the biomass industry in the South.

Read SELC's comments on the issue (pdf)

 

Facts:

  • U.S. forests sequester more than 10% of our annual carbon emissions. 
  • While new trees recapture some of the carbon from burning trees, a Massachusetts study showed it would take over 100 years to reach carbon neutrality and over 30 years to have net-lifecycle emissions lower than burning coal. More than 60% of the timber annually harvested in the U.S. comes from the Southern region extending from Virginia to Texas.
  • In Virginia, Dominion has one existing biomass-burning plant and plans to co-fire biomass with coal at a plant currently being constructed in Wise County. It has recently proposed converting three of its other electric plants to biomass. Another utility plans a new wood-burning plant in South Boston. In addition, there are three proposed wood-pellet manufacturing plants in southeastern Virginia. Combined, these facilities would demand 5.2 million green tons per year (gtpy), often from sourcing areas that overlap each other and overlap sourcing areas for proposed facilities in North Carolina. 
  • Georgia is also seeing major expansion of the industry and pressure on its forests, much of it from wood-pellet production for export to Europe. Two plants in the southeast part of Georgia are alone anticipated to consume as much as 3.5 million gtpy.


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The Southern Environmental Law Center is a regional conservation organization using the power of the law to protect the health and environment of the Southeast (Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama). Founded in 1986, SELC's team of 40 legal experts represent more than 100 partner groups on issues of climate change and energy, air and water quality, forests, the coast and wetlands, transportation, and land use.

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