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EPA defers greenhouse-gas rules on burning biomass as fuel

January 12, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Biomass The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  announced it will defer greenhouse-gas permitting requirements for emissions from industries' burning of biomass -- plant materials and animal waste that are used as fuel.

Announced Wednesday, the EPA says the three-year deferral will allow the agency to research the environmental impact of burning biomass for fuel and to develop rules on whether emissions from such sources would require permitting under the Clean Air Act.  

The nation's first greenhouse-gas permit requirements, established under the Clean Air Act, took effect Jan. 2. Under the rules, the largest greenhouse-gas emitters, such as power plants and refineries, are required to obtain permits for new or modified sources of greenhouse-gas emissions and to implement the best available control technologies. Burning biomass may be considered an implementation of a best available control technology.

“We are working to find a way forward that is scientifically sound and manageable for both producers and consumers of biomass energy.  In the coming years we will develop a common-sense approach that protects our environment and encourages the use of clean energy,” EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in a statement released Wednesday.  “Renewable, homegrown power sources are essential to our energy future, and an important step to cutting the pollution responsible for climate change.”

The EPA says it is seeking scientific input from other federal government agencies, as well as outside scientists; it will also consider the 7,000-plus comments it received after issuing a call for information last year. That call included comments that burning some types of biomass for fuel emits the same carbon-dioxide emissions as not burning it, while other types may emit more.

The EPA's deferral affects facilities that emit carbon dioxide from burning forest or agricultural products for energy, as well as wastewater treatment and livestock management facilities, landfills and fermentation processes for ethanol production.

The EPA's biomass deferral was championed by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.“America’s forest owners, farmers and ranchers can play a crucial role in providing renewable energy from wood, switchgrass and other agricultural products.  Homegrown energy can provide jobs in rural America while reducing greenhouse gases," Vilsack said in a statement released shortly after the EPA announcement.  "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."

The response of the Natural Resources Defense Council, however, was mixed."The good news here is that the EPA has made clear not all biomass has the same carbon footprint, but we can't afford to wait three years to make sure our forests aren't being plowed under and more, not less, carbon pollution dumped in the air," said Franz A. Matzner, legislative director of the NRDC's climate center. [Updated 1-12-11, 2:55 p.m.: The original version of this post did not include a statement from the NRDC.]

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times