Carbon neutrality push undercuts Clean Power Plan — study

Source: Geof Koss, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A new analysis finds that congressional efforts to require federal agencies to consider biomass a carbon-neutral power source would lead to a major increase in carbon dioxide emissions that otherwise would be cut under U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

The white paper, released by the Partnership for Policy Integrity, uses U.S. Energy Information Administration data to assess the additional carbon emissions that could result if biomass is considered carbon neutral, as envisioned by language in the Senate energy bill (S. 2012) and House and Senate appropriations bills. The legislation would direct EPA, the Energy Department and the Agriculture Department to craft a policy that reflects the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy (ClimateWire, April 21).

The study examined three scenarios used by EIA to model impacts on renewable energy generation under the CPP, including a reference case that assumed the CPP is not implemented and two additional scenarios, one of which considered biomass as carbon neutral and a second that counted carbon emissions from bioenergy.

Classifying biomass as carbon neutral would increase biomass capacity by 87 percent compared with EIA’s reference case scenario and the model that accounts for carbon emissions.

Overall, the study concludes that the electric power sector would emit 830 million metric tons of carbon emissions between 2017 and 2030 if biomass is labeled carbon neutral. The 64-million-metric-ton average annual increase in emissions equals the amount of carbon released by wildfires in the continental United States in 2013, it states.

“Biomass power plants emit more carbon pollution per megawatt-hour of electricity than coal plants. Offsetting these emissions would take decades,” PPI Director Mary Booth, who authored the paper, said in a statement. “The energy bill biomass loophole is See-No-Evil climate science because it ignores the millions of tons of pollution from burning wood for energy.”

The study also concludes that increasing the use of biomass would not displace coal use, which is actually higher under the carbon neutral scenario than EIA’s scenario that counts bioenergy’s associated carbon emissions. If considered carbon neutral, biomass demand would require the equivalent of clearcutting 6 million to 8 million acres of forest, it finds.

Additionally, PPI concludes that bioenergy would suppress solar deployment, which is 21 percent higher under EIA’s scenario that counts biomass emissions compared with the one that does not. The study also echoes complaints by public health groups, which last month urged lawmakers to reject the Senate energy bill language and the appropriations language, in part because they said it would increase emissions of conventional pollutants, including particulate matter (E&ENews PM, Sept. 13).

That letter, as well as other pushback from environmentalists, does not appear to have changed many minds among key senators (E&E Daily, Sept. 16).

In a joint statement, spokeswomen for Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) today noted that the bipartisan biomass amendment was adopted on the floor unanimously.

“The Senate has strongly supported the benefits that biomass utilization can have, including instances in which it is a carbon neutral source of energy,” the aides said in an email. “Conversations about the amendment are expected to continue among the bill conferees, the amendment sponsors and other congressional colleagues as the energy bill moves through the conference process.”

Committee staff today also noted that the biomass amendment that was adopted was tweaked to address concerns raised over what was originally filed by sponsors Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Angus King (I-Maine). Specifically, language was added to ensure that “the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest use.”

Aides from both parties questioned the assumptions and math contained in the PPI study, which they said ignores overall market trends. They also disputed the notion that “somehow we’re wrecking the Clean Power Plan,” which they noted is predicated on providing flexibility to states to meet the emission goals.

“Would these states have signed on to the Clean Power Plan … if they thought that biomass couldn’t be a relevant big part of how states could comply?” said one staffer. “I think they all assumed that it would be.”

Furthermore, the biomass provision wasn’t intended to be a “one size fits all” approach.

“Biomass makes sense where biomass makes sense,” the aide said. “And it may not make sense in some other place. And I think that’s why you haven’t seen the administration weigh in on this, because they recognize that there needs to be this flexibility and opportunities for communities based on what they have available to them in order to comply. What we’re essentially saying in the amendment is go ahead and consistently come up with that flexibility, that policy that allows for that flexibility.”