WASHINGTON, D.C. – Score one for the infant biomass business.

The Environmental Protection Agency has backed off on permitting requirements that threatened to undercut the growing industry and the related efforts to restore forest health.

The EPA announced Wednesday, Jan. 12, that it would defer – for three years – the emissions limits that drew sharp criticism from Congressional delegations in the forest states.

The new decision was lauded by elected officials in Oregon, including U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.

“The EPA was precariously close to enforcing new job-killing regulations, and with the urging of a bipartisan congressional effort, made the right decision in reversing course,” Walden said. 

The agency said it would use the time to seek “further independent scientific analysis of this complex issues.”

The agency will look at rules for carbon dioxide emissions for the biomass heat systems to determine if Clean Air Act permits should be required.

The EPA’s original proposal lumped biomass in with regulations for fossil fuels like coal and oil. Critics said that ignored the fact that biomass operations yield benefits for the environment by using a locally available, renewable resource and by improving the health of forests.

“We are working to find a way forward that is scientifically sound and manageable for both producers and consumers of biomass energy. In the coming years we will develop a commonsense approach that protects our environment and encourages the use of clean energy,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “Renewable, homegrown power sources are essential to our energy future, and an important step to cutting the pollution responsible for climate change.”

Since a call for public input last July, the agency received more than 7,000 comments. Some commenters noted that the CO2 emission from burning some biomass is equal to the emission from the matter if left alone, while others show a net decrease in such emissions if burned as fuel.

The EPA also granted a petition from the National Alliance of Forest Owners to reconsider a rule proposed last May. 

Dave Tenny, president of NAFO, applauded the EPA action. He said the moratorium will allow the federal agencies, producers, scientists and other stakeholders to “develop a science-based policy supporting a vibrant biomass energy sector for the long term, without penalizing biomass production in the interim.”

In Oregon, the biomass industry is just taking hold. 

Grant County’s new regional airport terminal has a biomass boiler, and Blue Mountain Hospital is installing one. The systems use product from the new pellet fuel plant that began operating last month at Malheur Lumber Company in John Day – a project that is expected to create more than a dozen jobs locally.

In turn, Forest Service managers see biomass fuel demand as a key to implementing the thinning  and forest restoration projects needed to reduce fire risk and improve forest health. 

Walden said he hopes the three-year reprieve, “while very welcome,” doesn’t cause uncertainty that slows investment and job creation. He said he’ll be watching the EPA to ensure that the biomass opportunities in rural Oregon can move forward.

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