EPA’s biomass climate mess
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Among the outgoing Obama Administration’s principal priorities was limiting U.S. production of greenhouse gases. But in one area, its EPA undercut that goal, putting the U.S. at odds with a global scientific and policy consensus and peer-reviewed American science. When it meets in January, the next Congress should act early to correct the mistake.

What might be called the Age of Sustainability began at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro “Earth Summit.”  The massive convocation (172 governments; 116 heads of state) set out objectives and activities for dealing with urgent global challenges, particularly identifying strategies for addressing climate change.

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It placed a high priority on transferring energy generation from fossil fuels (carbon removed from the atmosphere before humans evolved and buried ever since deep underground) to sources in the present-day ecosystem including forest-derived biomass (brush, trimmings and other byproducts of scientific and complex sustainable forest management practices).

This consensus has been reaffirmed repeatedly. In 2007, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called for “a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fibre or energy from the forest.”

In 2015, the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development recommended “Improv[ing] access to modern biomass technologies and fuel wood sources…” This past June, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change embraced “the integral and sustainable management of forests, while reaffirming the importance of incentivizing ….”

Among the most powerful “incentivizing” for “the integral and sustainable management of forests” is the income private forest owners receive from forest-derived biomass that substitutes for fossil fuels. It also includes waste from pulp, paper, and wood product production processes that lowers the cost of powering those operations. These incentives are one reason the volume of trees in America’s forests has increased fifty percent since the 1950s.

Dr. Roger Sedjo of Resource for the Future, and Dr. Stephen Shaler of the University of Maine wrote recently that, “[A]s the biomass industry steadily expanded, forest stocks in the American South – a key source of raw biomass – have actually increased by almost 1.2 billion tons of volume…. [F]or every ton of low quality hardwood removed for biomass energy each year, forests are growing an additional 2.4 tons of volume.” They added that, “Removing biomass from growing forests… helps prevent wildfires – themselves a source of CO2 pollution – by clearing out dense undergrowth that increases fire risk.” Today, carbon storage in our forests offsets thirteen percent of US CO2 emissions annually.

Yet despite the success of the global consensus as a greenhouse gas mitigation strategy, in 2010, without warning or offering a scientific basis, EPA announced that it would regulate forest-derived biomass no differently than coal, oil, and natural gas. It had previously counted the fuel as carbon neutral. It may have been the first time that any government backtracked on a key element of the sustainability agenda.

Twice in the years that followed, a group of the nation’s most prominent forest scientists – drawing on the most extensive U.S. summary of their discipline’s peer-reviewed scientific literature ever undertaken  -- told the agency: 1) the carbon benefits of sustainable forest biomass were well established; 2) the most effective carbon mitigations measures were those that reduce carbon accumulation in the atmosphere over time; 3) a century was the most appropriate timeframe for measuring the impact of a greenhouse gas and demonstrates the benefits of forest biomass over fossil fuels, and 4) incentives mattered. In other words, they said that the best of current peer-reviewed science confirmed the global consensus.

Soon EPA backtracked, suspended its decision, and committed to a revision by July 2014. But the revised policy never materialized. This year, an official Scientific Advisory Board on the subject failed to finalize a report under development since 2011. A sense of limbo now hangs over forest-related industries.

At the end of this just adjourned Congress, House and Senate committees considered bipartisan legislation instructing EPA to recognize biomass’s carbon benefits. Enacting this provision early in the next Congress would resolve the uncertainty and put U.S. policy back in line with the rest of the world. It would help insure that a full portfolio of sustainable and renewable energy sources and healthy, absorptive forests becomes our national patrimony.

Mr. Alavalapati is dean of the School of Forestry & Wildlife Services at Auburn University

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.