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By Nathanael Greene on Jun 18, 2010 with 9 responses

Magically Carbon Neutral Biomass, Evil EPA Rules and other Myths

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a bank account that automatically filled back up no matter how much you spent? You could just ignore how much you spent. Amazingly, the bioenergy industry has succeeded so far in convincing legislators here in the U.S. and around the world that bioenergy offers just such a carbon account. According to the industry, we only need to look at the carbon that biomass absorbs, not the carbon emissions it releases. The industry has convinced policymakers that no matter how much carbon is “spent” when biomass is burned for energy, there will magically be enough income in the form of regrowth to cover all expenses. Because of this magic, the industry would have us categorically exclude their emissions when we do our carbon accounting.

As I’ve written about before, both the House climate and energy bill (ACES) and the American Power Act recently introduced in the Senate buy into this magically carbon neutral source of energy. The European Union has done it too.

So how did the biomass industry and its supporters on Capitol Hill react recently when EPA said it was going to account for the emissions column of the ledger as part of its rules governing which facilities will be covered by the Clean Air Act? Sadly, with willful misinterpretation. The industry and its supporters have been able to cow the agency and the rest of Congress by claiming that EPA is only going to look at the emissions associated with burning biomass. Only looking at the expenses part of the ledger would be just as wrong as assuming magical income, but that of course is not what EPA said it would do.

Back middle of May, EPA released its “tailoring rule,” which governs which sources of global warming pollution will be required to get federal pollution permits. The rule includes the smokestack pollution from burning biomass. The preamble to the rule discusses some of the complexity around biomass emissions accounting and announces EPA’s intention to seek stakeholder input and, within a year, issue guidance on how to account for both sides of the ledger.

On May 24, Weyerhaeuser—one of the biggest proponents of the concept that bioenergy is magically carbon neutral—sent EPA a letter saying that it was “taken aback” that EPA wasn’t towing the line, buying into the magic, and ignoring biomass emissions.

On June 2, EPA responded to Weyerhaeuser by pointing out that it was already committed to getting input and working to get biomass accounting right. That would be the end of a wonky story except that last week the Senate considered (and fortunately rejected) a proposal from Senator Murkowski that would have forced EPA to stop this work and ignore all sources of global warming pollution. What’s more, some Senators that should have known better thought that this was a way to “fix” EPA’s tailoring rule.

As my colleague Dan Lashof wrote, Senators Collins and Snowe from Maine and Senator Brown from Massachusetts voted last week for Murkowski’s massive giveaway to coal and oil–because as Senator Collins put it:

“Incredibly, the EPA proposes to ignore the carbon neutrality of biomass and place onerous permitting requirements on businesses such as Maine’s biomass plants and paper mills, which use biomass to provide energy for their operations.”

Interestingly, the same day that the Senate was voting to reject Murkowski’s big polluter bailout, Massachusetts was releasing a report commissioned by the state’s Department of Energy Resources. As I’ve written a little about, this report, done by Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences, makes it very clear that most forest biomass is not carbon neutral. In fact, the report finds that burning whole trees to make power would leave the atmosphere 3% more polluted between now and 2050 than burning coal over that same period.

This finding should not be surprising. Wood, especially green wood, contains less energy per pound of carbon than coal and forests grow slowly. So when we burn a tree, we’re releasing more carbon and getting less energy than we would if we burned coal, and then re-absorbing that carbon very slowly as trees grow back. This means the timeframe over which we do our accounting also makes a big difference. For example, over 100 years or more, the forest may grow back, reabsorb the carbon that we released initially, and possibly absorb enough additional carbon to put the biomass carbon ledger ahead of coal, but there’s no guarantee. And in the meantime the climate get more and more unstable and 100 years is simply too long to wait for significant carbon reductions.

But the report also discusses how different sources of biomass and different approaches to managing forests after biomass is harvested can have a big impact. Under a best-case scenario for sourcing and forest management, the study finds that 40 years of wood-derived power could actually be 11% better than 40 years of coal. This is still very far from 100% better, which is what carbon neutral implies, but this is why EPA should be netting carbon debits and credits over some reasonable period, and taking into account both the source of biomass and land management practices. I’ve written about the importance of getting this type of accounting right before and just recently 90 scientists called on Congress to get it right in climate legislation and energy policy.

While the report does an impressive job of looking at a range of forest sourcing scenarios, it doesn’t look at woody residues at lumber yards or papermills, where biomass is coming out of forests anyway. Nor does the report try to look at agricultural residues or biomass specially grown on degraded lands. If EPA does netting right, these sources of biomass will be encouraged.

Representing as they do a state with such a strong forest industry, it certainly makes sense for Senators Collins and Snowe to be pushing for smart netting as part of EPA’s tailoring rule, but supporting Senator Murkowski’s attempt to roll back EPA authority to protect our air quality was not a vote for thoughtful regulation. It was like using a chainsaw where pruning shears would have done the trick, and Senators Collins and Snowe, both leaders in the climate debate, know better.

The second EPA action that Senator Collins takes exception with in her statement is the agency’s proposed new air regulations that would require biomass combusters not to emit more carbon monoxide, mercury and other toxics than the cleanest fossil fuel boilers. Tellingly, the industry doesn’t argue (subscription required) that they aren’t emitting this pollution or that the pollution isn’t hurting people’s health or even that the technology doesn’t existing to clean up the pollution. Their only argument is that it will cost them too much. As Jane Williams, Chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s National Air Toxics Task Force, put it: “What they’re saying, apparently, is: ‘We’re just too dirty…We can’t meet the standards because we’re too dirty.’”

The worst part about this is that bioenergy doesn’t have to be a major source of pollution. There are sources of biomass that can be used to replace fossil fuels and provide a low-carbon source of energy. And the toxics that are produced from burning clean biomass are technically easy to control. (Burning garbage, which sometimes gets called biomass, is a different matter.)

But you can’t fix a problem if you won’t acknowledge it exists. The ultimate solution is a comprehensive climate and energy bill that requires careful accounting of all carbon, including the carbon released and absorbed by biomass. I hope that Senators Collins, Snowe and Brown will read MA’s new report, recognize that carbon neutrality is a myth and biomass pollution is still pollution, and work with NRDC to shape the climate and energy bill and EPA’s rules to get the best performance we can out of bioenergy.

  1. By rrapier on June 19, 2010 at 1:58 am

    According to the industry, we only need to look at the carbon that biomass absorbs, not the carbon emissions it releases.

    This may resolve a puzzle for me. POET’s LCA for their Project Liberty claims an over 100% reduction in carbon emissions relative to gasoline. I have been involved in LCAs, and the only time I have ever seen this done is when you are actually sequestering carbon. For instance, if I took some biomass, produced fuel, and then had a char byproduct that I buried, in theory I could get more than a 100% reduction because some of the carbon in the air ended up back in the ground. But if I turned all of the biomass into energy, then the most I could theoretically get would be 100%, and that is if I have no energy inputs into the process. But given the faulty accounting you mention above, I can see how POET claimed the over 100% reduction.


  2. By RMida on September 17, 2010 at 10:49 am

    Great article. To find out more information on Biomass Energy
    or download our Biomass Fact Sheet. Carbon neutrality is certainly a myth for biomass.

    Also see our relevant page on Biofuels and Cellulosic Ethanol

  3. By Kit P on September 17, 2010 at 5:15 pm

    No magic to it if you the very reasonable Weyerhaeuser letter.  It does not surprise me that the NYC and Washington DC intervener industry is against biomass renewable energy.   


    I have no problem using LCA to show than biomass renewable energy projects are beneficial for the environment and are more than carbon neutral.   



    Adding anaerobic digesters to a dairy farm is an example where a 900% reduction in ghg following ISO 14000 methods is possible.  The easiest part to understand is in the energy produced.  If 1 MWe net is produced by burning biogas in an ICE and it offset coal then there would be a 100% reduction.


    “if I have no energy inputs into the process”


    Energy inputs must be considered of course  but for the sources of energy being replaces.  In the example case, biogas is supplying the local grid replacing fossil fuels from the a thousand miles away.  Therefore we will call it 110% reduction while improving grid reliability.


    Frequently, the waste biomass requires handling energy even if no energy is produced.  In the case of dry woody type waste, adding fluidized bed boilers to replace energy imported to a site, reducing handling energy.

  4. By paul-n on September 17, 2010 at 6:38 pm

    For example, over 100 years or more, the forest may grow back, reabsorb the carbon that we released initially, and possibly absorb enough additional carbon to put the biomass carbon ledger ahead of coal, but there’s no guarantee

    When a forest grows for 100 years, it has stored quite a lot of carbon in the soil, in the form of root mass, and likely created quite a bit of organic topsoil too. Some of this does rot away, but the lignin stays behind.  So even if we remove all the above ground biomass every cycle, we have actually put some carbon into the ground.  If the latitude is high enough, (about 40 degrees or so) it will stay in the ground.

    This is hard to measure of course, but that doesn’t mean it is not happening.  That is, after all, where the feedstock came from for the peat and coal beds in the first place.

    If you are using carbon that came from the biosphere, I think it is reasonable to call it carbon nuetral.  if the forest that was harvested is remaining as forest, I think it is reasonable to call that carbon nuetral.  If you are claiming to be carbon negative by removing it from the biosphere (sequestering) then it needs to be clearly demonstrated and quantified, demonstrated, even for the forest example above. 

    if you are clearing forest for farming other biofuels, then that is not carbon nuetral, as the large storage has gone, but the subsequent biofuels are carbon nuetral.  If you are clearing land for urban development, then it is definitely not carbon nuetral, as the storage is never replaced.

    Kit’s 110% example is good, though I think claiming the credit for the extra 10% might be hard.

    Other side of that coin, if an electric customer in NYC wants to buy Dakota wind power, their carbon credits should, theoretically, be reduced by the transmission loss, which would be substantial – a fact that is frequently overlooked in the mainstream media, especially if it is displacing nearby coal/ng generation, as is usually the case..


    Problem is, if the carbon system is trying to capture every nuance it will be so complex (like the tax code) that the general public can’t understand it, and it may fail to achieve it’s purpose. of modifying behaviour. The more complex it is, the more it is opened up to gaming and loopholes.

    For that reason, I am in favour of labelling all biomass carbon neutral, and if people are doing permanent clearing of land, they pay the carbon tax then, for the amount that is removed.  From that point on, the biomass is deemed neutral.  



  5. By Kit P on September 17, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    “Kit’s 110% example is good, though I
    think claiming the credit for the extra 10% might be hard.”


    Showing it technically would not be too
    hard following under certain auditing rules that were set up a carbon
    market. However, a system developed by by our government will likely
    benefit accountants, lawyers and the intervenor industry (NRDC) not
    leaving any money for actual environmental improvement.

  6. By paul-n on September 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm


    To use the thermodynamics term, the “parasitic losses” from the complex extra process will almost certainly exceed the benefits gained.  

    Hence my preference for a simple, flow through carbon tax, if there must be a system at all.  Clear rules and a set rate (which can change, but everyone knows what it is).  NO brokers, markets traders, specualtors etc involved.  And VERY clear rules about what constitutes carbon sequestration – even my tree roots example doesn’t cut it – you have to be doing more than what Nature would, not just taking credit for what will happen regardless.  

    And certainly not things like this;…..artin.html


  7. By paul-n on September 17, 2010 at 11:05 pm


  8. By Kit P on September 18, 2010 at 10:08 am

    through carbon tax”


    me know when you are done driving all the jobs in North America to
    China and India!


    brokers, markets traders, specualtors etc involved.”


    jobs either!  While the problems gets worse. 


    have a whole list of biomass projects that LCA shows will have
    multiple environment benefits and will likely be economical. The
    root cause of getting financing is the uncertainty uncertainty

    that bankers see. Provide a $3M dairy farm AD project a $500k or a
    loan a grantee, then the project gets built.

  9. By paul-n on September 18, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Kit, I did, say, “if there must be a system at all”

    To which I will add, the carbon tax is then applied to imports.

    Of course, you could just apply a carbon tax to imports, and not bother with a domestic system at all.


    I face the same issue about financing uncertainty – the more uncertain the bank is, the more they charge, and ultimately, they make the money, not the project.

    I would like to think that revenue from carbon tax /trading system would be used toward such projects, but then, we have seen how that process gets politically distorted too. 


    There are many small, efficient energy projects that can be done, if the financing hurdle is eliminated.  

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