The Trump administration on Thursday endorsed burning trees and other biomass to produce energy, vowing to promote a practice some scientists have declared more environmentally devastating than coal-fired power.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined the departments of Energy and Agriculture in a letter to congressional leaders committing to "encourage the use of biomass as an energy solution." The EPA also reasserted its view that power plants burning trees and other woody materials to generate electricity should be viewed as carbon neutral, because when new trees are grown, they remove carbon dioxide from the air.
The agencies also are committing to collaborate on policies promoting biomass, which could include Energy Department research and encouraging utilities to substitute wood for coal in power plants. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the move "will support good-paying jobs in rural communities, protect our nation's air quality and remove unnecessary regulatory burdens."
But environmentalists say burning trees releases carbon dioxide previously trapped inside the plant. And when forests are cleared to produce energy, it can take them decades — or longer — to regrow, if they ever do.
The result is a power source that can generate more carbon dioxide emissions than the coal it is sometimes meant to replace.
"When biomass from forests is burned for electricity, it immediately emits CO2 to the atmosphere in amounts equivalent to, and often greater than, fossil fuels," more than six dozen scientists said in a letter Wednesday to Wheeler. "If trees are harvested for use in bioenergy production and then regrown, the combination of the regrowth and displaced fossil fuels can eventually pay off the carbon debt, but that 'payback period' typically ranges from decades to hundreds of years."
The EPA's own science advisers also warned that assuming biomass emissions are carbon neutral "is inconsistent with the underlying science."
Thursday's letter from the federal agencies responds to a provision Congress tucked into a spending bill directing federal agencies to establish policies that "reflect the carbon neutrality of forest biomass for energy production." Even before that directive, under former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency declared in April that it generally considered burning biomass for energy as carbon neutral.
The Trump administration now is effectively doubling down on that declaration, with the EPA promising to help unlock "the full benefits of biomass for energy" and encourage its growth "as a key part of our nation's energy supply."
The approach could be good news for timber companies and firms that pelletize wood for power plants.
The American Forest and Paper Association said the administration was ending "seven years of policy uncertainty" that "jeopardizes our companies' ability to invest in biomass and build and upgrade their facilities."
The EPA also has proposed giving utilities credit for cutting carbon dioxide emissions when they replace some coal in power plants with biomass. That kind of substitution would qualify as an efficiency upgrade under the EPA's proposal to relax Obama-era Clean Power Plan curbs on greenhouse gas emissions from electricity.
Shifting to biomass increases carbon dioxide emissions "in nearly every scenario," the Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Air Task Force and seven other environmental groups said in comments filed on the plan Wednesday.