EPA Defers Greenhouse Gas Permitting For Industries That Use Biomass for Energy

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The Environmental Protection Agency announced plans Jan. 12 to defer for three years greenhouse gas permitting requirements for new and modified industrial facilities that use wood, crop residues, grass, and other biomass for energy.

EPA said it will use the time to seek further independent scientific analysis of biomass emissions and develop a rule that lays out whether they should be considered emissions that trigger Clean Air Act permitting requirements for greenhouse gases.

EPA included greenhouse gas emissions from biomass-energy sources in permitting requirements for new and modified greenhouse gas emissions sources when it issued the greenhouse gas “tailoring” rule in May 2010 (41 ER 1049, 5/14/10).

Members of Congress from rural areas, along with biomass-consuming industries, protested the application of permitting requirements to biomass.

The agency issued a call for information in July seeking comment on how biomass emissions should be treated under the permitting program (41 ER 1507, 7/9/10).

EPA said Jan. 12 that it will issue guidance shortly on whether biomass energy can be considered a best available control technology (BACT) for limiting greenhouse gas emissions at new and modified sources. In November, the agency said it would issue the guidance in January.

Clean Air Act permitting requirements for new and modified sources of greenhouse gas emissions took effect Jan. 2 under the act's prevention of significant deterioration (PSD) provisions.

As part of its deferral of permitting requirements, EPA notified the National Alliance of Forest Owners that it will grant its petition to reconsider the portion of the tailoring rule requiring permitting at biomass sources.

More Time for 'Detailed Examination of Science.'

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent letters to Sens. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) announcing the deferral.

In the letters Jackson said the deferral will give EPA time for “a detailed examination of the science associated with biogenic CO2 emissions and to consider the technical issues that the agency must resolve in order to account for the biogenic CO2 emissions in ways that are scientifically sound and also manageable in practice.”

Gina McCarthy, EPA assistant administrator for air and radiation, sent a letter Jan. 12 to Roger Martella, Rachel Gray, and James Coleman, lawyers at Sidley & Austin for the National Alliance of Forest Owners, notifying them that the agency will reconsider its original decision to apply PSD permitting requirements to biomass emissions.

Decision to Help Reduce Uncertainty.

Dave Tenny, president of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, praised the EPA action, telling BNA that it will encourage investment in biomass facilities by helping to reduce the uncertainty over EPA requirements.

Tenny described such uncertainty as “a strong deterrent to investment” that would lead investors to back fossil fuel energy rather than biomass. While EPA is deferring requirements for only three years, not permanently, the agency action “sends a signal that it will not treat naturally cycled carbon from biomass the same as fossil fuel, which sends carbon one way to the atmosphere.”

“I would be surprised if EPA comes back in three years and says they are the same.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a strong proponent of biomass energy, said in a statement, “In many cases, energy produced from biomass will provide significant reductions of greenhouse gases relative to fossil fuels. USDA looks forward to working with EPA in ensuring that this Administration's policies use the best science and spur innovation and job creation in the renewable energy sector.”

Ann Weeks, an attorney with the Clean Air Task Force, praised EPA for making the commitment to subject biomass emissions to scientific review.

“The science today, however, tells us that all biomass does not provide immediate greenhouse gas mitigation, and in fact some may have greater climate impacts than fossil fuels,” Weeks said. “A precautionary approach to biomass in greenhouse gas permitting, therefore, is the only approach that makes sense, legally and technically, pending the outcome of a detailed scientific review.”

The Center for Biological Diversity condemned the action. “The EPA has caved in to months of political pressure from the timber and biomass industries and their allies in Congress,” said senior attorney Kevin Bundy in a statement. “Sadly, the result will be an increase in greenhouse pollution, not a decrease. There is no scientific or legal justification for treating carbon pollution from burning trees differently from other kinds of carbon pollution. Carbon dioxide is carbon dioxide--the climate can't tell the difference.”

By Steven D. Cook