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Is Biomass Clean or Dirty Energy? We Won't Know for 3 Years

Should turning tree parts into electricity qualify as renewable power or is the practice dirtier than burning coal?

By Stacy Feldman

Jan 13, 2011

The Obama administration put off for another three years a decision on whether to regulate planet-warming gases from biomass power. The surprise delay dealt a blow to green groups' hopes for pollution controls on wood-burning incinerators anytime soon, while industry breathed sighs of relief.

"It was a total shock," said Margaret Sheehan, a lawyer with the Cambridge, Mass.-based , who said that she believes Big Timber was behind the U.S. EPA's decision.

Dan Whiting, spokesperson for the (NAFO), an organization of private forest owners in 47 states, said he was "pleasantly surprised."

Still, the delay leaves wide open a question central to the industry's future: Should turning tree parts into electricity qualify as clean renewable power in the eyes of government regulators, or should biomass emissions be regarded as a source of greenhouse gas pollution?

The verdict on that, however it is decided, will have major implications for developers of the $1 billion industry and U.S. states striving to meet clean energy targets.

Biomass includes plant waste, wood chips, organic debris and whole trees, and industry representatives say burning it is "carbon neutral." They argue that new growth absorbs CO2 and cancels out emissions spewed into the atmosphere from burning the wood.

"Biomass greenhouse gas emissions ... are part of the natural carbon cycle, and they don't increase carbon in the atmosphere," Whiting told SolveClimate News.

Conservationists dispute that claim with a very different understanding of what constitutes the natural carbon cycle. Rotting biomass enriches soils, which capture and sequester some of the carbon of the once-living plant tissue.

They argue that biomass combustion produces more CO2 than burning fossil fuels — by how much varies depending on the type of materials and how they are transported. Harvesting whole trees is seen as the worst for climate change. But Sheehan said that using logging leftovers is not much better.

"It's not really waste. It's part of a natural carbon cycle.  If we vacuum up the forest floor to burn all the twigs and leftover debris, then they will continue to deplete our soil," she told SolveClimate News.

EPA said it would bring the best science to bear on the issues over the next three years. By July 2014, it will decide how to treat biomass under its "tailoring" rule, which determines which polluters are required to account for their emissions under the Clean Air Act. 

EPA began formally regulating heat-trapping gases from power plants and refineries on January 2 under the rule. 

in May 2010, EPA proposed that emissions from biomass combustion be regarded as greenhouse gas emissions, but in July, the agency released a "call for information" on the issue and received more than 7,000 comments. The following month, NAFO sent a petition urging the agency to exclude biomass facilities from regulation altogether, which led to this week's decision.

Industry to Feel 'Significant Regulatory Chill?'

Sheehan said "the significant regulatory chill" may "throw the entire industry in chaos."

"The simple fact that EPA is calling for a three-year study of the carbon neutrality issue indicates that there is a serious question here," she said. "In the past, biomass has gotten a completely free pass. It's been just assumed with no questions that it was climate neutral."

Industry representatives disagreed.

Bob Cleaves, CEO and president of the Biomass Power Association (BPA), the largest U.S. biomass trade group, said the decision "provides a lot of regulatory certainty at the moment."

"Three years is a long time," he told SolveClimate News. "During that period, projects that are viable and are ready to be permitted, will be permitted."

Industry believes its arguments will win out in the EPA review process. "The science is very clearly on our side. Biogenic emissions are far different than fossil fuels, and they're beneficial to the climate," Whiting said.

Trees Instead of Coal?

Thank you very much for

Thank you very much for sharing interesting topic. You are giving very good stuff through this post. I will suggest my friends to read this post. By making use of biomass and the carbon cycle, we can easily help get the world back to its natural cleanliness and keep pollution away while still creating energy for us to use. I have read one article "Biomass and The CarbonCycle" at What do you think about Biomass and The CarbonCycle?


Three years sound like a long time. Still, there are already reports showing that biomass is clearly better than fossil fuels for running our cars.

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