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Federal Bill Largely Ignores Importance of Wood Biomass
Federal Bill Ignores Wood Biomass: Congress considers clean energy legislation; it could spell trouble or opportunity for the forest products industry, depending on the final version.
By DeAnna Stephens
Date Posted: 7/1/2009
A bill that has the power to shape the future of renewable energy in the United States is currently being crafted in Congress. The existing version offers little promise to the forest products industry due to its fairly stringent interpretation of what qualifies as renewable biomass.
Congressional leaders claim that the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACESA), commonly referred to as the Waxman-Markey Bill, will create green energy jobs while cutting carbon emissions and reducing reliance on foreign oil. Unfortunately, preservationist groups are working hard to severely limit the use of wood biomass by strictly defining what qualifies as “renewable” under the bill.
The restrictions on biomass sources are part of the renewable electricity standard (RES) the bill would establish. The RES would require 6% of electricity produced by retail electric suppliers to come from renewable sources by 2012, with an increase to 17% by 2020. Renewable energy resources within the RES include biomass, solar energy, wind energy, geothermal energy, and hydropower. However, where biomass can originate and still be considered renewable under the RES is severely limited.
If the bill is passed with these restrictions, biomass harvested from plantations established after January 1, 2009, many federal lands, or natural mature or old-growth stands would not qualify as a renewable resource.
Having the potential to shape the face of renewable energy in this country over the next decade, the final wording in this bill is critical if wood biomass is to become a major energy source. The Waxman-Markey Bill seeks to influence energy decisions by creating a strong market demand for biomass and awarding grants for those creating renewable energy jobs. ACESA could revitalize the wood harvesting industry. However, these possibilities are severely limited by the narrow definitions of renewable biomass.
“An RES, structured appropriately, would help to create a market for woody biomass. This, in turn, could encourage much-needed forest health or fuels reduction projects by offsetting some of the cost of biomass removal. An RES with a restrictive, one-size-fits-all definition would encourage the opposite,” a representative of the Society of American Foresters said.
The definitions are troubling because they mean that ACESA would not only fail to create many possible green jobs within the wood harvesting industry, but it would also put the wood industry at a competitive disadvantage for the renewable energy grants that the bill creates.
During committee deliberations, the original definitions of biomass were broadened to allow wood biomass from federal lands, and more private lands in the eligible sources. However, the existing bill still excludes many federal lands and uses vague terms regarding other key sources.
“Without additional improvements, the U.S. forest products industry will be unfairly penalized by this legislation,” said, Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA). The forest products industry would like to see the bill using terms that promote sustainable forest management.
“The word ‘mature’ is the biggest problem,” said Erica Rhoad, Forest Policy Director for the Society of American Foresters. Though the bill uses the word to define what areas eligible biomass can originate from, it does not define it. “Mature is such a broad word, and it is not currently used by the land management agencies,” Rhoad said.
Current wording excludes a substantial amount of federal lands, specifically some older areas that need thinning the most. Rhoad said that many forest stands that would qualify as mature are the ones that need thinning and hazardous fuel reduction treatments, making their omission from the RES on the basis of protecting old-growth contradictory in nature.
“Woody biomass is not the cutting down of old-growth trees,” said American Loggers Council Vice President Danny Dructor. “A sustainable biomass industry will keep our forests healthy and provide clean energy and green jobs.”
The bill leaves the definition of “old-growth” to the relevant State Forester or agency with regulatory jurisdiction over forestry activities.
Many in the wood industry would also be disqualified from the offsets program the bill establishes for projects that result in the sequestration of greenhouse gases or the avoidance or reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. According to ACESA, a forest products company cannot receive offset credits for activities started before January 1, 2009, unless they were already registered as offset projects. This punishes those projects that voluntarily reduced greenhouse gas emissions before January of this year.
“Renewable electricity is renewable power, regardless of when it’s made,” AF&PA officials said.
According to officials at the AF&PA, the forest products industry already generates 28.5 million megawatts of renewable electricity from biomass annually, (enough to power 2.7 million homes and more than the energy that is produced from solar, wind, and geothermal sources combined), which is used internally to run operations.
If the bill is passed with the current biomass restrictions, it could cause significant renewable energy sources to remain untapped. The benefits of reducing the risk of devastating forest fires and insect infestations will also be lost with the failure to revive the small-town economies that rely on logging.
The bill has strong support by top Democratic leaders in Washington. Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, said her goal is to have the bill on the House floor as soon as possible. President Obama has also voiced support
for the bill. However, there is enough opposition to hold up the bill for a while depending on what happens as the legislation weaves through various committees.
ACESA is an amendment to the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act
of 1978. The bill was approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee on May 21.
The forest products industry needs to stand up for wood biomass as a critical market for the future. Failure to do so could hamper recovery at a time when demand from traditional wood users is plummeting.