Academics and environmentalists say they’re worried the Biden administration won’t walk back a Trump-era endorsement of burning wood for energy—a technology they say emits more carbon than coal.
Some opponents of wood biomass, which uses plant or animal materials as fuel to produce electricity or heat, say they’re especially concerned about Environmental Protection Agency chief Michael Regan’s track record with the industry when he headed North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality.
During those years, Regan approved several permits for wood pellet plants in North Carolina, one of the nation’s biggest-producing states. Most of the state’s wood pellets are shipped overseas for energy production.
Regan hasn’t publicly commented on his plans for the wood biomass sector. An agency spokeswoman told Bloomberg Law that the issue is “a complex topic, and one that EPA is considering very carefully.” She also said the EPA is “committed to following science and the law as we determine next steps.”
That doesn’t satisfy Juliette Rooney-Varga, director of the University of Massachusetts, Lowell’s Climate Change Initiative. She joined 15 other scientists in a February letter to the Biden transition team, asking them to permanently designate mature and old temperate forests as national strategic carbon reserves.
“We are eagerly awaiting clarity,” Rooney-Varga said. “What do they mean when they say they’re going to follow the science? I’m not satisfied with it. That response leaves the door open to continuing to treat woody biomass as carbon-neutral, and we don’t think it is.”
The scientists haven’t gotten a response, she said.
Adding to academics’ and environmentalists’ concerns are recent calls from the influential Climate 21 Project for the Biden administration to “promote sustainable bioenergy, wood products, and other bio-based materials,” and to “dramatically” increase the use of “wood energy and wood product innovation.”
The project’s past leaders include Joseph Goffman, now principal deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation; Vicki Arroyo, now the associate administrator for the Office of Policy; and Dan Utech, now chief of staff.
No ‘Future in Wood Pellets’
Under President Donald Trump, the EPA in October 2018 encouraged the use of biomass as an energy solution, saying trees and other wood materials should be viewed as carbon-neutral because the plants suck carbon dioxide out of the air when they eventually regrow.
But President Joe Biden, on his second day in office, revoked the EPA’s draft ruling finding of sustainably harvested woody biomass as carbon-neutral as part of a broader regulatory freeze.
Regan told the Raleigh News & Observer in January that DEQ had tightened its regulations. He said Enviva—the world’s biggest wood pellet producer for power plants, which has plants in North Carolina—had “gone above and beyond what we could require from a legal or regulatory standpoint to ensure that we don’t have any exacerbations of those emissions.”
He also said he didn’t “see a future in wood pellets.”
Meanwhile, the wood biomass industry has defended itself as a careful steward of the environment.
The industry only uses waste wood and wood byproducts that have no other productive use, and doesn’t cut down trees just to burn them, said Carrie Annand, executive director of the Biomass Power Association. The industry can also help clear out dead trees from forests that can make wildfires worse, she said.
Enviva only sources biomass from regions where carbon stocks are stable or increasing, such as the southeastern U.S., said Jennifer Jenkins, the company’s vice president and chief sustainability officer.
Moreover, the wood biomass sector only provides about 2.3% of U.S. energy use, according to the Energy Information Administration.
“We’re talking about a very small part of U.S. power capacity,” Annand said.
Strong markets for forest products also help keep forests standing, according to Jenkins.
Rooney-Varga discounted those arguments, saying the existence of a biomass industry creates a strong incentive to keep feeding it; that the wood biomass energy sector has already increased by 250% between 2010 and 2015; and that wood residues should be used for other products, such as particle board.
Undermining Climate Goals?
Even a small uptick in wood burning “will undermine our climate goals by emitting more carbon and cutting down the plants that sequester it,” Rooney-Varga said.
As head of North Carolina’s DEQ, Regan was far from a full-throated supporter of wood pellets, according to Heather Hillaker, a staff attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who worked closely on the issue with Regan.
The DEQ did reject wood biomass as a clean energy technology under its 2019 clean energy plan, Hillaker said. But under Regan, the agency also continued to issue permits for new and expanded wood pellet facilities, she said.
Regan has said if a company is complying with the law, the DEQ must issue the permits. Hillaker acknowledged that those strictures are real, but also said the agency could have done more.
“You could not say he’s been a staunch opponent of the industry writ large,” Hillaker said.
Donna Chavis, senior fossil fuel campaigner for Friends of the Earth, added that the sector is especially hard on environmental justice communities.
“When you hear folks say they follow the science, the social science data around the impacts in these communities is irrefutable,” Chavis said.
Playing It Safe
Caught between warring narratives, some industrial-scale power buyers have decided to stay out of the fray by turning their backs on wood bioenergy.
That’s what happened in Somerville, Mass., which in 2019 ruled out biomass as a qualified category for renewable energy certificates because the city couldn’t be sure how long it takes for trees to regrow and balance out the carbon they emit when burned, according to Oliver Sellers-Garcia, director of the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.
“The timeline isn’t perfectly clear, there’s legitimate scientific debate, and there are better options,” said Sellers-Garcia. “So let’s not put our weight behind it. It’s that simple.”
Denise Provost (D), a former Massachusetts state representative who introduced a bill that would have taken biomass off the state’s renewable portfolio program in 2019, said Somerville’s approach is logical.
“The science is against it,” she said. “The economics don’t make sense. Why would anybody subsidize Stone Age technology?”