WASHINGTON—If the science behind burning wood as fuel were as black and white as a third-grader's multiplication tables, it never would have sparked such fiery exchanges in Massachusetts. Lack of such simplicity, however, puts the unfolding debate into a category grownups often label "that messy gray area."
As the Bay State grapples with downsizing its carbon footprint, authorities initially opted to allow biomass power plants to receive healthy incentives as part of the state's renewable portfolio standard.
But that evidently changed this week when the state's top environment official ordered the Massachusetts Department of Energy to tighten those rules and be stricter with the types of wood-burning power plants that qualify for green credits.
"In light of the Manomet study, we have a deeper understanding that the greenhouse gas impacts of biomass energy are far more complicated than the conventional view that electricity from power plants using biomass harvested from New England natural forests is carbon neutral," state Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles wrote in his July 7 letter. "Our policy should reflect this current science."
His four-page directive drew cheers from a Massachusetts advocacy organization and boos from a biomass trade association, with EPA deliberating what it should do about biomass at the federal level come a January 2nd deadline.
The chairwoman of the Stop Spewing Carbon Ballot Campaign announced that even though her group had collected 120,000 signatures, it has dumped its push for an anti-biomass November ballot initiative now that regulation for biomass plants will have to meet tougher standards for forest protection, heat-trapping gases and efficiency.
"This is a groundbreaking development that means an end to commercial biomass electric power plants in Massachusetts," Meg Sheehan wrote in a July 7 news release. "Ending renewable energy credits for dirty incinerators was the central goal of our ballot question and we have won."
But Bob Cleaves, chief executive officer of the Maine-based Biomass Power Association, was nowhere near as elated. Bowles jumped the gun by not waiting for public comments to be reviewed, he said.
"As a matter of rulemaking, this is nothing short of bizarre," Cleaves told SolveClimate Thursday, adding that he's still digesting the contents of the letter. "Instead of going to the voters of Massachusetts, agency officials decided they would resolve it themselves. With this, Massachusetts is setting the bar so far and high that it will potentially prohibit production of biomass in New England."
Study Spawned Controversy
Under the Global Warming Solutions Act, Massachusetts is required to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Biomass, along with solar, wind and geothermal are all part of the state's portfolio of renewable energy sources. That had prompted the Gov. Deval Patrick administration to invest in four proposed wood-burning plants in communities in the western half of the state—Springfield, Greenfield, Pittsfield and Russell.
To gain a grip on what the state's biomass policy should be, Department of Energy authorities commissioned a local nonprofit group to explain the science of generating electricity from waste wood.
Initially, however, the study released in June by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences seemed to create more confusion than clarity. The way results were presented by report writers and the media left the public puzzled as to whether burning biomass is "carbon neutral" or "worse than coal."
A deeper dive into the report shows that the outcome depends on the source of the biomass, and how it is transported and converted to energy. Indeed, burning whole trees could lead to deforestation and higher carbon emissions than coal-fired electricity by 2050. But burning tree limbs from timber harvests reveals a 2050 carbon neutral scenario—even though Massachusetts doesn't have a timber industry that's substantial enough to supply the required amount of fuel.
Where Massachusetts Might Be Headed
For environmental organizations the most vital takeaway from scientific studies of biomass energy options is this: All biomass is not created equal.
"What Manomet did was run all of the scenarios and it's actually a very good report," Nora Johnson, a conservation-climate policy associate with the Wilderness Society told SolveClimate in an interview. "What it really comes down to is that we have proper accounting methods for biomass."
An accurate and full accounting of biomass emissions offers the industry the optimal chance for growth because it will be able to compete as prices for fossil fuels rise.
She complimented Massachusetts for trying to assemble a sound, science-based biomass policy as the state advances its renewable energy portfolio.
"I think of Massachusetts as a beacon for how it addresses renewable energy," Johnson said. "I can't say if it will be a model that other states to follow but it's a good development for Massachusetts.
Bowles wants the new biomass standards in place by the end of the year. He is requiring the new regulations to specify what types and amounts of wood, plant waste and organic debris qualify to be burned as renewable biomass. Broadly, he is directing the biomass industry to show how wood-burning plants will cut more greenhouse emissions during shorter time periods.
Specifically, these directives will require the state's Department of Energy Resources to set up a life-cycle accounting system for biomass emissions. For instance, the biomass industry must be able to demonstrate that their plants can cut emissions of heat-trapping gases in half by 2020, when compared to a plant that generates electricity with natural gas.
"I look forward to a fully transparent and robust public process as the new regulations are developed and finalized," Bowles wrote.
Hurried-up Announcement Annoys BPA
That Bowles sentence about transparency and robustness is what had Cleaves fuming.
"He says he welcomes a robust and transparent process, to which we say, really?" Cleaves said. "I have huge problems with the commonwealth not following its own laws."
Cleaves said Bowles never should have issued his directive before allowing the schedule of stakeholder public hearings and public comments on biomass energy and the Manomet study to play out. The deadline for public comments is July 9.
The Biomass Power Association is submitting comments, participating in hearings and hoping that state authorities hear its voice, Cleaves said.
"What precipitated the need for letter on July 7?" he asked. "I'm concerned about Bowles using a study that hadn't been the subject of public comment. That's profoundly unfair and not the right way to make policy."
Despite his frustration with process, Cleaves said his organization was pleased with one issue of substance—that Bowles recognized residues and waste wood as biomass energy sources. The secretary called on the Department of Energy Resources to include residues from logging, land-clearing for development, mills and landscaping.
What's Happening on the Federal Biomass Front
Environmental organizations have kept an eye on Massachusetts while also continuing to track how Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency are handling biomass energy issues.
The Wilderness Society and 19 other conservation groups sent a July 2 letter to U.S. senators asking them not to sign a letter being circulated by two of their colleagues from timber-friendly states. Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, are arguing for a blanket assumption of "carbon neutrality" for all trees and woody plants.
But the conservation groups stress that biomass projects need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Their July 2 letter points out that EPA did not give a blanket exclusion when applying the Clean Air Act through the tailoring rule because the agency acknowledges the wide variety of emissions outcomes from biomass.
"In doing so, the EPA is adhering to the best available science," the letter states. "Biomass, done correctly, can be part of the solution to the climate crisis. But, if done wrong, biomass can increase greenhouse gas emissions and undermine our climate goals."
EPA is set to begin regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by January 2011. The letter emphasizes that the EPA has not declared that it will treat "biomass combustion the same as fossil fuels." The agency has yet to determine what the permitting requirements will be for each fuel source.
In tandem, the coalition of conservation groups also sent a July 2 "attagirl" letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, complimenting the agency for including emissions from burning biomass when determining whether a permit is required under the tailoring rule.
This "commits EPA to further evaluation of and rule-making on how to account for the complexity of biomass potential to reabsorb some or all of this pollution as plants grow back," the letter states.