During a recent trip to New Hampshire, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt indicated that new plans for federal energy policies could support the regional forest products industry by classifying biomass as a carbon-neutral feedstock and including it in the energy portfolio.
In a letter to NH Governor Chris Sununu, Pruitt notes that the agency plans to add biomass (forest and other plant-based fuels) into its “all of the above” energy portfolio. “As you and I both recognize, continuing to be responsible stewards of our nation’s forests and lands while utilizing all domestic forms of biomass to meet our energy needs are mutually compatible goals,” Pruitt wrote.
The letter suggests the EPA is working toward recognizing biomass energy as carbon-neutral in "appropriate circumstances.” However, the letter also notes the reality of the agency’s current challenges; after 7 years of review and analysis, the Scientific Advisory Board still hasn’t reached a consensus regarding the comprehensive carbon-neutrality of biomass.
New Hampshire currently has fewer than 10 working biomass power plants, which are the chief consumers of low-grade wood that once went to New England’s pulp and paper mills. But as Eric Kingsley noted last fall, this market is forcing biomass plants to change their business model. For many standalone wood-fired electricity plants, the cost of fuel (wood chips) and operations exceed what they get paid for the electricity they generate. With natural gas (and thus wholesale electricity) prices expected to remain low—and state-level support for biomass fading—biomass plants are working hard to figure out how to continue operating.
Kingsley added that “New Hampshire and Maine have provided some short-term support to biomass electricity facilities in recent years with the expectation that the funding was a bridge to allow time for new economic models to be developed. We’re now starting to see some real efforts to find ways to improve the economic sustainability of these facilities, often in ways that add to the rural economy.”
Pruitt wrote in his letter to Sununu that ”By further incorporating these sources into an ‘all of the above’ energy portfolio, the agency will expand the economic potential of our nation’s forests, while at the same time ensuring states like New Hampshire are able to determine the best energy sources to meet their local economic and environmental needs. I look forward to continuing to work with you and the broad range of interested stakeholders to provide clarity and incorporate consistent treatment of biomass throughout the range of EPA’s regulatory programs.”
Administrator Pruitt’s proactive approach could benefit not only biomass power producers, but also regional the forest supply chain. In states like New Hampshire, where the forest industry has faced a number of challenges as pulp and paper mills continue to shutter, federal action could help breathe new life and investment into the timber-rich region.