EPA Grants Industry Three-Year Deferral Of Permit Requirement for Biomass Facilities

New and modified facilities that burn wood waste, or landfills with emissions from decomposing biomass, will not have to seek greenhouse gas permits for at least three years, the Environmental Protection Agency announced July 1.

The agency said it needs more time to determine how to more precisely measure the carbon dioxide emitted by those operations.

Under the decision, outlined in a final rule posted on its website, EPA will not require the facilities to obtain Clean Air Act Title V operating permits or prevention of significant deterioration permits for their greenhouse gas emissions.

The affected facilities include stationary sources such as biomass combustion plants, landfills where carbon dioxide is emitted from the decomposition of biogenic materials, wastewater treatment plants, and manure containment facilities.

Delay First Suggested in March

EPA first suggested a three-year delay in a proposed rule published in March that would defer permitting requirements under its greenhouse gas tailoring rule for new and modified industrial facilities that use wood, various crop residues, grass, and other biomass (54 DEN A-12, 3/21/11).

The 2010 tailoring rule was intended to limit the application of EPA's greenhouse gas requirements to the largest stationary sources.

The agency expects to complete its review of the issue well within the three-year period, and it could revisit the idea of regulating the wood-burning and other biomass plants, depending on the conclusions of the study.

In the final rule, the agency cautioned that “it is possible that the subsequent rulemaking, depending on the nature of EPA's determinations, would supersede this rulemaking and become effective in fewer than three years.”

Decision Welcomed by Industry

EPA's final approval of the three-year delay was welcomed by industry groups such as the National Alliance of Forest Owners as well as utilities, which have supported the delay in comments on the proposed rule submitted in May (90 DEN A-2, 5/10/11).

“This is a prudent step towards restoring the federal government's long-standing policy that biomass energy is an environmentally beneficial alternative to fossil fuels and does not increase the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” according to NAFO President David Tenny.

But environmental groups such as the Southern Environmental Law Center said the three-year deferral was a major step backward in EPA's efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Frank Rambo, director of SELC's Clean Energy and Healthy Air Program, said biomass plants that are constructed or expanded over the next three years and are granted PSD permits in that period covering other pollutants would essentially be protected from any future regulation of its greenhouse gas emissions.

“What if EPA changes its mind and says after a year of study, we realize there should be permits required” to address greenhouse gas emissions, Rambo said. “If it already has its PSD permit in hand, we don't think it's going to have to go back and reopen that permit and get another round of approval” for the greenhouse gases it emits, he said.

“If you are in the industry, you would want to get that permit while the getting is good,” he said.

Detailed Examination of Science

According to an EPA fact sheet, during the three-year deferral period, the agency will conduct a detailed examination of the science associated with biogenic carbon dioxide emissions, including measuring them “in ways that are scientifically sound and also manageable in practice.” In late 2011, EPA will send that study to the Science Advisory Board for peer review.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson signed the final rule July 1, and it is expected to be published soon in Federal Register.

By Dean Scott

More information on EPA's final rule on biomass facilities, including links to the rule and a fact sheet, is available at http://www.epa.gov/NSR/actions.html#2011 .