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Biomass Industry Fears EPA Ruling

By   /   September 11, 2010  /   No Comments

State residents have until Tuesday to comment on a proposed EPA regulation that biomass proponents say would cost jobs, hurt local economies and impede energy security.  

The regulation would treat emissions from biomass generators the same way as emissions from fossil fuel plants.  

If passed in its current form it would make biogenic emissions subject to greenhouse gas emission requirements that take effect in January 2011. 

That is a mistake, according to Bob Cleaves, CEO of Maine’s Biomass Power Association.  “Unlike CO2 dug up from the ground, where new carbon is being added to the carbon cycle, the carbon emitted when burning biomass is already part of that cycle, which makes it carbon-neutral.”

As it stands, Cleaves said the current ruling is “not scientifically sensible” because it makes those who discharge CO2 subject to more regulatory costs, irrespective of the impact on the carbon cycle.   

“Biomass facilities are already on the ragged edge, so if there are new costs, they will not be absorbed.  I can think of nine or ten facilities that may close if biomass emissions are not exempted from the new ruling.” 

Jeremy Payne, the Executive Director of Maine’s Renewable Energy Association, reiterated, “Any regulation that has chance to shut biomass plants will have a tremendous economic impact.”

Payne observed that many jobs hinge on the vibrancy of Maine’s biomass industry, one of the leading producers of biomass energy in the country: “It’s not just about the plants themselves – it’s about the guys out in the woods, it’s about the guys who deliver the products, and it’s about the end users.”

Members of Maine’s congressional delegation concurred.  Michael Michaud (D-ME 2nd district), emailed a statement to MaineWatchdog.org: “Our state is leading the nation in biomass, and I am extremely concerned about this rule’s effect on those advancements.”  In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, Michaud said he and other members of Congress “highlighted how inconsistent the ruling is with existing federal policies and congressional intent that encourages the expanded use of biomass nationwide.” 

Chellie Pingree (D-ME 1st district), said in a statement that “biomass power produced from sustainable forests doesn’t have the same carbon footprint as power from a coal or oil fired power plant, and the federal government shouldn’t be imposing a one-size-fits-all-rule.”

Back in Augusta, the Baldacci administration is also hopeful that the draft rules will change.  Governor Baldacci’s Communications Director, David Farmer, said: “We have an expectation that they’ll be corrected.” 

Farmer said that Governor Baldacci wants to reduce Maine’s dependence on fossil fuels, and increase the state’s ability to rely on “homegrown, locally produced power, such as biomass, wind, and tidal power.”  He said the Governor believes that renewable energy sources will be the best way to “protect rate payers from fast and unpredictable price fluctuations in the cost of fossil fuels.” 

Jim Brooks, Director of Air Quality at Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection, agrees that biomass should be treated differently, but he doesn’t think that the tailoring rule will have substantial negative impacts.  He said that most biomass generators will have to comply with new reporting requirements, but they will not be impacted by higher efficiency standards unless they choose to upgrade their technologies.

Bryce Sproul, Maine DEP’s Director for Licensing and Enforcement, pointed out in a separate phone conversation that it is very unlikely for existing generators to add boilers.  He explained: “Unless a facility has both a capacity to emit 100,000 tons of CO2 annually and a desire to upgrade, the higher efficiency standards will not apply.” 

The diversity of opinion stems, in part, from diverging scientific viewpoints.  Stephen Shaler, Program Leader of the Wood Science & Technology Department at the University of Maine, says that the issue of carbon-neutrality is hard to pin down. “You can have legitimately different answers depending on your time scale.  In general, there is nothing that is carbon neutral, but it depends on your system boundaries – it becomes a question of what timeframe you’ll be using in your discussion.” 

The lack of scientific consensus, in turn, has policy implications in DC.  A spokesperson at the EPA said in a statement to MaineWatchdog.org that they are “committed to working with stakeholders to examine appropriate ways to treat biomass or biogenic combustion emissions, and to assess the associated impacts on the development of policies and programs that recognize the potential for these fuels to reduce overall GHG emissions and enhance US energy security.” 

Officials at the EPA said they collect feedback to “examine how we might address such emissions under permitting programs.”  The comment period on the proposals ends September 13, and the transition process will commence on January 1. 

Cleaves said that the current ruling raises the larger question of the relationship between Congress and the EPA: “If Congress fails to pass carbon legislation, the Obama administration may rely on the EPA to exercise its regulatory authority.  We’re ok with that, provided that we’re treated well, and not penalized, which makes no sense from a policy standpoint.”

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Stephan Burklin