By Corey Paul
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today announced it will defer for three years any greenhouse gas permitting requirements for biomass, potentially boosting the industry that Oregon advocates say can create thousands of jobs, provide a renewable fuel source for the state, and propel thinning projects in national forests.
In delaying the requirements, the EPA bowed to intense pressure from Western politicians and business groups, and it acknowledged the uncertainty about the atmospheric impact caused by burning plant waste and other biomass materials. The agency will use the next three years to study whether climate change is affected by the burning of non-fossil fuels for energy, including wood, mill waste, straw, manure and forest slash.
Supporters include Gov. John Kitzhaber, forestry groups, and U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden. Wyden has repeatedly railed against the EPA's classification of biomass, calling it "bad science."
"The Obama administration is not getting it right on biomass," Wyden told a group of Klamath Falls public officials and biomass advocates at the Oregon Leadership Summit last month. "They treat biomass (in Oregon) as if it were a belching pollution-plant in some other part of the country."
Critics worry that assuming woody biomass is "carbon neutral" will increase greenhouse gas emissions because the burning process releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The state counts biomass as one of the sources of renewable energy that qualify for its Renewable Portfolio Standard that will require large utilities to provide 25% of their electricity sales from clean energy by 2025.
On Jan. 2, the EPA started requiring permits for new or substantially modified facilities that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Now, operators just need to show they are using the most efficient technology available. The agency plans to prescribe more specific abatement measures next year.
“We are working to find a way forward that is scientifically sound and manageable for both producers and consumers of biomass energy,” said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson in a statement. “In the coming years we will develop a common-sense approach that protects our environment and encourages the use of clean energy.
“Renewable, homegrown power sources are essential to our energy future, and an important step to cutting the pollution responsible for climate change,” she said.
Kitzhaber praised the EPA's decision later in the afternoon.
"This is good news for forest health on the eastside and westside as well as rural economic development in Oregon," the governor said in a statement. "I will continue to work hard with Oregon's Congressional delegation for a permanent solution that gives communities, innovators and investors the certainty they need to help build a robust biomass industry in Oregon."
Corey Paul is an associate writer for Oregon Business.