Air Pollutants From Biomass Burning Exceeds Coal

Bloomberg BNA — Facilities burning biomass emit more air pollutants, including carbon dioxide, per megawatt-hour than those that burn coal, according to a Partnership for Policy Integrity report.

The April 2 report, “Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal,” examined 88 Clean Air Act permits issued to industrial sources that burn biomass. It found that sources burning biomass emit 50 percent more carbon dioxide per megawatt of electricity generated than coal-burning sources.

Additionally, the report said that even the cleanest-operating biomass facilities emit 150 percent more nitrogen oxides, 600 percent more volatile organic compounds, 190 percent more particulate matter and 125 percent more carbon monoxide than coal on a per megawatt-hour basis.

The report calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to set more stringent air pollution standards for burning biomass to generate electricity.

“Compounding the problem, bioenergy facilities take advantage of gaping loopholes in the Clean Air Act and lax regulation by the EPA and state permitting agencies, which allow them to emit even more pollution,” the report said. “Electricity generation that worsens air pollution and climate change is not what the public expects for its scarce renewable energy dollars.” Half of the 88 facilities analyzed had avoided prevention of significant deterioration entirely by obtaining synthetic minor permits. Those permits establish emissions restrictions to keep sources below the level that would require more extensive pollution controls.

Carbon Neutrality Defended

The report questions the forestry industry's assertion that burning biomass is effectively carbon-neutral because those emissions would be released eventually once the plant matter decomposed. The report argued that decaying plant matter would release its emissions much more slowly than burning biomass.

However, the forestry industry defended biomass as a carbon-neutral fuel source.

“The carbon neutrality of sustainably managed forest biomass is a scientifically supported fact,” Jessica McFaul, a spokeswoman for the American Forest & Paper Association, told Bloomberg BNA in an April 2 e-mail. “U.S. forests absorb more carbon from the air through growth than they release through harvest. Our members' use of biomass manufacturing residuals for energy has enormous greenhouse gas reduction benefits—equivalent to removing 40 million cars from the road. Furthermore, use of other biomass-based fuels reduces our reliance on non-renewable fuels and lessens the burden on landfills.”

The EPA has begun to permit greenhouse gas emissions from sources burning biomass after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 2013 vacated a rule that had temporarily exempted them from the permitting requirements.

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