Energy Policy Should Maximize Benefits of All Renewable Biomass
February 12th, 2010
The new rule announced by EPA last week implementing the federal Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) takes a major step toward a clean energy future by including forest biomass as a feedstock for transportation fuels. However, any effort to maximize this plentiful source of low-cost, domestically produced biomass is hamstrung by a flawed legal definition that excludes an estimated 90 percent of the nation’s renewable biomass from private forests from the program.
The RFS, which was authorized by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA), carries with it a very narrow definition of what is considered renewable biomass eligible for incentive programs aimed at boosting the U.S. renewable fuel and power supply. The EISA provision significantly restricts the use of renewable material in bioenergy production by allowing only that biomass from “actively managed” forests and croplands to qualify as renewable biomass.
The RFS specifically cites the use of biomass feedstocks such as crop residues (corn stover, wheat straw, rice straw, citrus residues); forest thinnings and solid residue remaining from forest product production; secondary annual crops planted on existing crop land; separated food and yard waste; and perennial grasses including switchgrass and miscanthus.
However, the EISA definition excludes those feedstocks from idle cropland, naturally occurring forestland, federal lands, or former industrial land that could be producing energy crops. Blenders and refiners have no incentive or requirement to purchase biofuels produced from those sources. It prevents millions of acres of farm and forestlands from contributing to the nation’s energy independence, denying rural employment and income.
The restricted definition under the RFS also shrinks the environmental benefits available from forest biomass, including benefits to forests themselves from new investment in quality forest management. By excluding biomass from private forests as a tool in the U.S. clean energy strategy, the EISA definition negates a critical part of the solution to reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign, high-carbon sources of fuel. The current definition not only worsens air quality, but also restricts the nation’s energy independence and the ability of forest owners to invest in the long-term health of their forests.
In fact, the limited EISA designation is one of at least four different definitions of qualifying forest biomass in federal statute, including a broader, more inclusive classification in the energy title (Section 9) of the 2008 Farm Bill. The farm law more broadly defines renewable biomass as organic material available on a recurring basis. It also allows use of “materials, pre-commercial clippings or invasive species” from national forests and federal land.
With Congress expected to address energy legislation this year, it is imperative that lawmakers fix the flawed definition in the RFS excluding most renewable forest biomass from the program. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a recent response to a letter from forestry and renewable energy stakeholders urging administration support for a wider scope of federally eligible biomass, said the Farm Bill definition shows “a common sense and practical approach that enables market participation while simultaneously considering the sustainability of our lands.”
America’s private and public forests are uniquely suited to help meet the nation’s renewable energy needs. Sustainably produced biomass from these lands could make substantial contributions to the production of next generation transportation fuels. Sound management of U.S. forests to provide biomass energy will also improve the overall carbon footprint of domestic energy supplies while contributing to the long-term forest health and vitality. That includes improving wildlife habitat, protecting water quality and reducing catastrophic wildfires that emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases each year.
The support of the 2008 Farm Bill definition of renewable biomass from Secretary Vilsack, and by extension, the Obama administration, is a welcome endorsement. The White House and the Congress should join forces in amending federal energy laws to get the greatest clean energy benefit from one of the nation’s most critical resources, its farms, ranches and forests.