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Regulations Could Count Biomass as a Form of Renewable Energy in MA

August 7, 2017

The Baker administration plans to propose rules that would count woody biomass – a fuel that comes from felling trees and clearing brush in forests – as a form of renewable energy. Under the proposal, users of woody biomass could be rewarded with subsidiaries. The administration claims that biomass is part of the effort to diversity the state’s energy portfolio, and that it would decrease carbon emissions. The administration’s proposal has been met with support from forest landowners, foresters, and the logging industry and opposition from environmentalists. Supporters consider biomass to be a form of renewable energy as long as the trees that are removed are regrown. They claim that biomass will be used in place of fossil fuels like oil and coal, and that regulations will require anyone who uses biomass to deploy emissions-control systems. They also deny that the proposal to count biomass as a form of renewable energy will lead to deforestation in Massachusetts; instead, it will actually encourage the growth of forests.

Opponents, however, have criticized the Baker administration’s plan. They point out that the administration could have made the regulations stricter than they proposed. They also argue that it will in fact increase carbon emissions, lead to deforestation, and create more pollution in the form of soot. Trees and plants grow by absorbing carbon dioxide. But, when they are burned, they release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. So, they contend, the financial incentives associated with the proposed rules will increase rather than decrease emissions. The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources held a public hearing on the proposal earlier today at Holyoke Community College. It was the last such public hearing. Environmental, justice, and public health advocates were on hand to protest and testify against the regulations.

Even officials who expect the regulations to be enacted soon recognize the concerns of biomass. A state-backed study conducted by the Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences in 2010 found that biomass “generally emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels per unit of energy produced.” But the study also found that the impact of biomass depends on several factors: forest management, technology and pollution controls, what gets harvested, what fuels biomass replaces, and how it long it takes to regrow the trees that are removed. The study suggested that large biomass projects are likely to produce greater emissions than coal over 40 years and natural gas over 90 years, but smaller biomass projects can produce fewer emissions than oil over 40 years. Both supporters and opponents of the regulations find fault with the study. Supporters think the study accounted for emissions in a flawed way; opponents think it underestimated the emissions by failing to account for greenhouse gases involved with transporting wood.

Administration officials highlight one benefit of biomass: its price is not as susceptible to spikes as oil and other energy sources. But they did not answer questions about the impact of the regulations on Governor Baker’s pledge to make up for President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris climate agreement. In June, Baker pledged with other governors to join the newly formed US Climate Alliance, but has not disclosed what he plans to do to make up for Paris. Massachusetts was already struggling to reduce its emissions from 1990 levels by 25 percent by 2020 as per the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act. If environmentalists are right, the biomass regulations will not help the state in its fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.