Leading SC Conservation Group Joins Lawsuit Challenging EPA Exemption for Biomass Burners

Recent scientific information indicates that burning biomass -- trees, for example -- can actually increase global warming pollution, even compared to fossil fuels.
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The Coastal Conservation League (CCL) based in Charleston, South Carolina has joined a lawsuit challenging an Environmental Protection Agency rule that exempts large wood-fired power plants and other biomass facilities from carbon dioxide limits under the Clean Air Act for the next three years. The lawsuit, filed last month by numerous conservation groups, says that EPA's unlawful rule will cause immediate harm as it will encourage a rush to build biomass power plants and other facilities without accounting for or controlling carbon pollution that contributes to climate change.

The ruling is particularly important for the Southeast, the "fiber basket of the nation," where utilities and independent power producers are moving briskly forward with dozens of large wood-fired power plants and re-purposed power plants. In communities scattered across the South, local demand from existing and proposed plants for wood fuel could easily outstrip the supply of available wood waste, meaning the facilities would need standing trees to meet the demand.

As CCL's Climate & Energy Project Manager, I would encourage the development of small-scale, high-efficiency advanced wood combustion facilities (AWCs) to invigorate South Carolina's working rural landscapes while helping reduce the state's dependence on imported energy resources such as coal. However, the environmental challenges and risks associated with AWCs and especially other larger, less efficient biomass facilities remain, and current regulations do not adequately address those risks.

"The South is already seeing a huge uptick in the number of new and retrofitted facilities that will burn woody biomass, which will create increasing pressure to cut native, standing forests for fuel. While certain types of biomass must be part of our nation's move to clean, sustainable energy sources, science shows that cutting whole trees often adds to the carbon output," said Frank Rambo, head of the Clean Energy and Air Program for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which is representing the Coastal Conservation League.

Recent scientific information indicates that burning biomass -- trees, for example -- can actually increase global warming pollution, even compared to fossil fuels. According to scientists, nearly all biomass fuels cause at least temporary near-term increases in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, significant amounts of which will persist in the atmosphere and cause climate damage for a century or more. This near-term increase directly undermines efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions over the next several years, an effort that is essential to avoid the very worst damage due to climate change. The EPA's rule, however, grants all facilities burning any biogenic materials a three-year hiatus from having to obtain permits and control their CO2 emissions.

Legal Background

The EPA's rule marks a striking about-face for the agency. The agency's "tailoring rule" -- the June 2010 regulation in which it spelled out how greenhouse gases would be regulated under Clean Air Act permit programs -- treated biogenic and nonbiogenic greenhouse gas emissions similarly. When industry groups challenged this aspect of the tailoring rule, the organizations filing today's lawsuit intervened to defend the EPA's decision. That case, National Alliance of Forest Owners v. EPA (D.C. Cir. Case No. 10-1209), is still pending. The EPA, however, has since reversed course. Earlier this year, the agency improperly granted an industry petition for reconsideration of the tailoring rule, a decision that the organizations filing today's lawsuit challenged in Center for Biological Diversity, et al. v. EPA (D.C. Cir. Case No. 11-1101). The biomass exemption rule challenged in today's lawsuit is the final outcome of the EPA's reconsideration process.

Numerous groups filed the original joint petition on August 15 in the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. SELC, which is representing the Coastal Conservation League and Dogwood Alliance in its petition, is already representing Georgia ForestWatch and Wild Virginia in the lawsuit. The Center for Biological Diversity is representing itself, and the Clean Air Task Force is representing Conservation Law Foundation and the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Ryan Black, SC Coastal Conservation League, (585) 645-5913
Frank Rambo, Southern Environmental Law Center, (434) 962-0086

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