A trio of Senators float a bill to bring clarity to the definition of ‘renewable biomass’ in federal legislation. While industry groups applaud the bill, environmental groups argue for better integration of safeguards.
A myriad of definitions currently exist for biomass within federal legislation and tax code. While creating catch-all biomass definitions is tricky and results in confusion when assessing the virtues of various feedstocks, further confusion over definitions for ‘renewable’ only adds more fuel to the fire so to speak.
It is no surprise, then, that a bipartisan trio of senators have unveiled legislation that would broaden the definition of renewable biomass across existing federal programs and cement the broad definition into future climate and energy bills.
Sponsored by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Jon Tester (D-MT) and Mike Crapo (R-ID), the bill (S.3381) would amend existing regulations for making biofuels and for other programs to adopt the relatively broad definition of renewable biomass used in the 2008 farm bill. It would also require any future renewable electricity standard or greenhouse gas regulatory system to adopt the farm bill’s definition as well.
The aim of the bill is to reduce confusion among federal agencies while also helping to restore health to America’s forests and further developing America’s renewable energy economy.
Title IX of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the Farm Bill) and Title II of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) both contain extensive definitions of renewable biomass, but each defines the term differently.
Generally speaking, for feedstocks to fall within the category of renewable biomass in both bills, it must be an infinite feedstock that may be replenished in a short time frame.
The Farm Bill focuses on invasive species and trimmings from public lands and organic matter available on a recurring basis, waste materials, and byproducts available on non-federal lands. In this way, it sets separate standards for federal and private lands. On federal forests, trees, brush, wood chips and other organic materials from federal logging projects would be eligible, provided they do not come from wilderness and roadless areas, national monuments, old-growth timber stands or other areas recognized for conservation. The agency managing the forest would have to assure that biomass was harvested in “environmentally sustainable” quantities.
EISA prohibits the removal of biomass from federal lands, but includes (for the purpose of Renewable Portfolio Standard eligibility): thinnings from non-federal lands, trees from actively managed plantations (both public and private), dedicated energy crops grown on nonforested land, waste, biomass obtained from the immediate vicinity of buildings, and algae.
The new bill’s definition for renewable biomass on private lands includes any organic matter available on a renewable or recurring basis, including trees, other plants and leftovers from the agriculture, forest and forest products industry.
The legislation has received an endorsement from Plum Creek Timber, one of the country’s largest landowners and forest products producers.
Company President and CEO Rick Holley released the following statement:
This bill will ensure wood is on an even playing field with other renewable energy materials. It will clarify much of the confusion in the marketplace, and will provide a strong incentive for the use of wood in producing green energy.
Nathanael Greene, director of renewable energy policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council and frequent commenter on carbon accounting errors, argues that the Farm Bill definition undermines biomass power’s environmental credibility.
NRDC and other environmental groups prefer the definition of renewable biomass adopted as part of the renewable fuels standard in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (see above). That definition includes regulations that prevent wild landscapes on private land from being turned into bio-crop plantations, Greene said. The definition also limits harvesting from private lands.
Without the safeguards, the climate benefits of switching from fossil fuels to biomass could be outweighed by landscape changes that release greenhouse gases and diminish the planet’s ability to sequester them.
The bill has been introduced and referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works. More on the bill to amend the definition of renewable biomass.
Related post: Biomass: Getting to Renewable