Vilsack says EPA biomass boiler decision could help reduce wildfire threat

Beetle kill trees near Breckenridge. (Hustvedt/Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today praised the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for delaying for three years carbon dioxide emissions permits for biomass boilers that convert wood and other plant material into energy.

“I strongly support EPA’s announcement today that it is starting an expedited rulemaking so that it can defer for three years greenhouse gas permitting requirements for biomass and that it is also undertaking a scientific assessment of how emissions from biomass should be treated under the Clean Air Act,” Vilsack said in a release.

The move is significant in Colorado because backers of biomass energy say that more 2 million acres of national forest land hit hard by a mountain pine park beetle epidemic could be tapped to generate hot-water heat and electricity that would actually replace dirtier fuel sources like coal and natural gas. The EPA delay makes that process more realistic.

“We are working to find a way forward that is scientifically sound and manageable for both producers and consumers of biomass energy,” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson said, according to Reuters. “In the coming years, we will develop a common sense approach that protects our environment and encourages the use of clean energy.”

Utility scale biomass power plants, much more common in Europe, have been proposed in different parts of Colorado, including a plan in Vail that stalled due to a lack of Department of Energy funding. The push for biomass power as a way to thin dead forests near mountain communities drew more interest this past fall during a brief but intense wildfire season that saw the most destructive blaze in state history with Boulder’s Fourmile Canyon Fire.

“America’s forest owners, farmers and ranchers can play a crucial role in providing renewable energy from wood, switchgrass and other agricultural products,” Vilsack said. “Homegrown energy can provide jobs in rural America while reducing greenhouse gases. Markets for woody biomass in particular can be especially important in allowing the U.S. Forest Service and other landowners to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire while restoring more natural conditions in our forests.”

Critics of using forest products for power worry that it will become an excuse to push more roads into the national forest, overly log certain areas and ultimately create a market that still emits greenhouse gases. However, high-heat wood gasification – in wide use in Europe – actually can be carbon neutral when compared to the potential emissions of a dead and biodegrading forest or one struck by an intense wildfire. And the power generally is used to replace sources such as coal and natural gas.

“EPA’s action today will provide the agency with the time it needs to ensure that greenhouse gas policies properly account for the emissions and carbon sequestration associated with biomass,” Vilsack said. “In many cases, energy produced from biomass will provide significant reductions of greenhouse gases relative to fossil fuels. USDA looks forward to working with EPA in ensuring that this administration’s policies use the best science and spur innovation and job creation in the renewable energy sector.”

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