On Wednesday, April 2, 2014, PfPI/Partnership for Policy Integrity in Massachusetts released a study by Dr. Mary Booth surveying biomass energy projects operating and proposed across the U.S. The study highlights seven public policy loopholes used to push these polluting facilities forward under the guise of “green energy” and finds that once these sites go online, communities experience worse environmental degradation than they were led to believe.
Trees, Trash and Toxics: How Biomass Energy has Become the New Coal
PfPI’s PNW Regional Press Release:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE APRIL 2, 2014
Contacts: Mary Booth (917) 885-2573; firstname.lastname@example.org
Partnership for Policy Integrity
Gretchen Brewer (360) 774-2115; email@example.com
Port Townsend Air Watchers
New Report: “Green” Biomass Electricity Plants in Washington and Oregon More Polluting Than Coal
New plants will increase toxic emissions while collecting renewable energy subsidies
Pelham, MA. - Biomass electricity generation, a heavily subsidized form of “green” energy that relies primarily on the burning of wood, is more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states.
Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal, released today and delivered to the EPA by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), concludes that biomass power plants being constructed in the Pacific Northwest are permitted to emit more pollution than comparable coal plants or commercial waste incinerators, even as they are subsidized by state and federal renewable energy dollars. The report contains detailed information on emissions from three of the biomass plants being constructed in the region, the Biogreen Sustainable Energy plant proposed in La Pine, Oregon, and the Nippon Paper and Port Townsend Paper biomass expansion projects being conducted on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.
“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean,’ said Mary Booth, director of PFPI and author of the report. “But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”
The report found that biomass power is given special treatment and held to lax pollution control standards, compared to fossil-fueled power plants.
Biomass plants are dirty because they are markedly inefficient. Per megawatt-hour, a biomass power plant employing “best available control technology” (BACT) emits more nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide than a modern coal plant of the same size.
Almost half the facilities analyzed, however, avoided using BACT by claiming to be “minor” sources of pollution that skim under the triggering threshold for stricter pollution controls. Minor source permits are issued by the states and contain none of the protective measures required under federal air pollution permitting.
EPA rules also allow biomass plants to emit more hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) than both coal plants and industrial waste incinerators, including heavy metals and dioxins. Even with these weak rules, most biomass plants avoid restrictions on the amount of toxic air pollution they can emit by claiming to be minor sources, and permits usually require little testing for proof of actual emissions. When regulated as a minor source, a facility is not required to meet any limitations on emissions of hazardous air pollutants.
The potential for biomass power plants to emit heavy metals and other air toxics is increasing, because new EPA rules allow burning more demolition debris and other contaminated wastes in biomass power plants, including, EPA says, materials that are as contaminated as coal. A majority of the facilities reviewed in the report also allowed burning demolition debris and other waste materials, including the Nippon and Port Townsend plants.
Port Townsend Air Watchers was among a number of groups that sued Washington State over the state’s failure to conduct an environmental impact assessment on the Port Townsend plant under a state law that requires such assessments for “energy recovery” facilities that burn solid wastes. The court denied the group’s suit, arguing that once waste materials are accepted as fuel, they are no longer waste because they have “become a commodity.”
“This is a race to the bottom in regulating polluting industries,” said Gretchen Brewer, Director of Port Townsend Air Watchers. “By arguing that “waste is not waste,” industries are systematically eliminating safeguards that should protect us from hazardous pollutants emitted by burning waste materials.”
“Lax regulations that allow contaminated wastes to be burned as biomass mean that communities need to protect themselves,” said Mary Booth. “They can’t count on the air permitting process to ensure that bioenergy pollution is minimized.”
The analysis also found that although wood-burning power plants are often promoted as being good for the climate and carbon neutral, the low efficiency of plants means that they emit almost 50% more CO2 than coal per unit of energy produced. Current science shows that while emissions of CO2 from biomass burning can theoretically be offset over time by forest regrowth and other means, such offsets typically take several decades to fully compensate for the CO2 emitted during plant operation. None of the permits analyzed in the report required proof that carbon emissions would be offset.
“Not only do these biomass facilities get to burn trees and waste in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mary Booth. “They also increase toxic air pollution, and they get the public to pay for it.”
The report is available at http://www.pfpi.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/PFPI-Biomass-is-the-New-Coal-April-2-2014.pdf