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Clearing the way
In mid-January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency handed a great gift to those who operate biomass-fired boilers or who hope to build new ones.
The agency, which is hard at work writing new regulations regarding large sources of greenhouse gases, gave biomass burning a three-year pass.
Specifically the agency announced its plan to defer for three years the permitting requirements for carbon dioxide emissions from biomass-fired and other biogenic sources. In its announcement regarding the decision, the EPA declared it will use the time “to seek further independent scientific analysis of this complex issue and then to develop a rulemaking on how these emissions should be treated.”
That decision means two proposed peninsula biomass boilers — one in Port Angeles, the other in Port Townsend — wouldn’t be regulated under the new rules for at least three years.
The agency’s decision is a victory for those who sought the temporary exemption for biomass operations, including Gov. Christine Gregoire, Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark and state Reps. Kevin Van De Wege and Lynn Kessler. All wrote to the EPA asking for further study on the matter before imposing the rules on biomass operations.
Gregoire and Goldmark quickly responded to the decision, saying, “We submitted a letter to EPA several months ago that reiterated our commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and outlined our concerns with its proposed rule. We were both glad to learn of EPA’s common-sense, balanced approach to this complex issue.”
The decision is good news for those who hope to see new biomass-fueled cogeneration plants built at the Port Townsend Paper mill and at the Nippon Paper Industries mill in Port Angeles.
An opposing view
Bonnie Phillips, former executive director of the Olympic Forest Coalition, was less pleased, saying, “I think the industry has pushed the Obama administration into that.”
Phillips said the regulatory process “was all very confusing — I think the consensus from the environmental community is that this gives the industry three years to kind of go crazy and get what they can.”
Citing the arguments regarding the burning of fossil fuels, Phillips said, “Wood biomass is dirtier than coal.” She also pointed to recent statements from the American Lung Association, which “has come out against biomass burning because of studies showing respiratory problems.”
Bob Lynette, co-chairman of the North Olympic Group of the Sierra Club, said he believes “a really big issue for Sequim residents is that they are directly downwind of the Nippon emissions and small particles (nanoparticles) cannot be easily filtered out.
“They are produced and emitted approximately in proportion to the amount of wood burned, which will double (if Nippon builds its new boiler).”
Lynette said there is “increasing concern by the medical community of the health dangers of these pollutants,” and cited the recent work of William A. H. Sammons, M.D., whom Lynette calls “a national leader against burning wood for energy.”
In a recent report, Sammons called the tiny particles “a major health hazard, especially for children, as reported in literally thousands of medical articles in the last four years.”
“The problem,” Lynette said, “is that the health impacts of nanoparticles are only recently being understood and our regional air pollution agency (Olympic Region Clean Air Agency) doesn’t have the regulatory authority for these ultrafine particles. Just as has historically been the case of other air toxins, regulation always lags the discovery of health impacts.
“Lack of a real understanding of the emissions and potential health impacts is just one of the reasons that the Sierra Club believes we need more information and time to understand the real impacts of Nippon’s proposal.”
Filing an appeal
Last month the Port Angeles City Council voted to uphold a decision by the city’s planning commission to issue a shoreline substantial development permit for Nippon Paper’s proposed biomass-fired cogeneration plant. This week the Washington state chapter of the Sierra Club joined five other environmental groups to appeal that decision. The state’s Shoreline Hearings Board will hear the appeal.
Lynette said the appeal argues the Port Angeles project should not have been processed as a shoreline substantial development permit but as a conditional use permit, “since it is primarily a power generation utility.
“A conditional use permit would allow for a factual exploration of key issues that were not examined thoroughly by the process,” he said.
Lynette said under the city’s shoreline master program, electricity-generating utilities sited in the shoreline zone are required to be reviewed with more consideration of the public interest. “The city refused to review the project as a utility. This appeal challenges that decision.”
John Woolley, president of the Olympic Forest Coalition, said his group joined in the appeal because, “We need a moratorium (on biomass burning). We just don’t know enough yet.”
He admitted that in the current tough economic times public officials want to support “anything that looks like a job.” But, he said, supporting the Nippon biomass burner and similar projects means, “We’re just going to borrow from the future again.”
The organizations filing the appeal also include No Biomass Burn, Port Town-send AirWatchers, World Temper ate Rainforest Network and the Olympic Environmental Council.
For the defense
Harold Norlund, Nippon mill manager, says the proposed boiler at the Port Angeles mill will substantially reduce the level of air pollutants now released at the paper mill and throughout the peninsula.
He says the current boiler, built in the 1950s to burn oil, now burns 70,000-75,000 “bone-dry tons” of biomass annually. The new boiler will up that to 160,000 bone-dry tons but because of its superior design it will reduce the overall emissions by approximately 19 percent.
Norlund said by burning the slash in a purpose-designed biomass boiler, rather than on-site at logging projects across the peninsula, the peninsula’s overall emissions will be reduced. He also noted the end result would mean less reliance on coal power for energy production, another emissions cut.
He said attempts to fight the use of biomass “appear to be good for the coal industry as coal represented the largest increase in new electrical generating capacity built in United States in 2010. Fossil-fuel-powered electrical generating plants (majority coal) today (generate) over 70 percent of the nation’s electricity and together contribute 34 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases (CO2).
“Thirty-six states are trying to offer renewable green energy to offset some of the growth in coal-produced electricity. The NPI USA project is a result of the nation’s and states’ desire to promote green energy projects.”
State promotes biomass
The Washington Department of Natural Resources is actively promoting the use of biomass through its ongoing Forest Biomass Initiative, saying it provides “opportunities for improved forest health, greenhouse gas reduction, green energy production and rural economic development.”
The DNR is outspoken in its statements regarding the favorable economic impact of biomass burning, saying the use of “forest biomass as an energy feedstock is helping to create a market for a product previously seen as ‘waste.’”
Nippon says it will spend $71 million expanding its boiler, which upon completion would generate steam to power the facility’s operations and up to 20 megawatts of salable electrical energy.
The $50 million Port Townsend mill also would help power the mill and create 24 megawatts of electricity that could be sold.
What about warming?
Does burning biomass raise the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? It’s an important question in the ongoing biomass debate because many believe CO2 — a “greenhouse gas” — contributes to global warming, which they further theorize will cause environmental havoc, with perhaps catastrophic results.
It seems like a simple question. Oxidation — whether it’s rust, rot or combustion — always produces two end products: carbon dioxide and water.
But that hasn’t stopped the debate. Many environmentalists and most governmental environmental authorities promote the burning of biomass, calling it a plentiful source of renewable energy.
They say biomass burning is “carbon neutral” — that it doesn’t raise levels of CO2 in the atmosphere because the fuel is part of a very short-term cycle. Yes, burning wood releases CO2, but it’s almost immediately taken up by new trees.
This is substantially different, they say, from the result of burning fossil fuels. While both processes produce CO2, burning fossil fuel releases carbon that has been stored (“sequestered”) for millions of years. That adds to the long-term level of CO2 in the atmosphere.
In a recent statement, the Washington Department of Natural Resources said, “The carbon that is released through the conversion technology (combustion) is balanced by the reabsorption of carbon by the forests. That’s why both federal and Washington state policy has viewed the utilization of forest biomass as carbon neutral.”
Some critics have suggested the additional emissions required to transport the biomass may tip the CO2 scales away from its use. The DNR has a ready answer for that, too, saying recent research by the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency suggests, “There are still fewer greenhouse gas emissions from forest biomass used to produce energy than if the forest residuals were to either be left on site to biodegrade … or burned on site.”
Nippon Paper Industries mill manager Harold Norlund explained the DNR’s conclusion, saying that biomass left in the fields also releases carbon dioxide as it degrades. The process further produces substantial amounts of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas, he said.
Bonnie Phillips, former executive director of the Olympic Forest Coalition, provided a different point of view. “In the end, burning wood will generate more CO2,” she said. While “the government and the industry tout biomass as carbon neutral … unfortunately this is not the case ….
“The problem here is that it will take 40–60 years to recapture (and sequester) the amount of carbon burned, and climate scientists say we must reduce greenhouse gases now.”