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Green Groups Challenge EPA's Air Pollution Exemption for Biomass Power Plants

Lawsuits target a "politically favored" clean energy industry subsidized with Obama administration stimulus dollars - and not always clean as it seems

The blossoming biomass industry, championed by the Obama administration as an important “clean” energy alternative, actually adds to carbon pollution and should be stripped of its three-year free pass from greenhouse gas regulations, several environmental groups asserted in a lawsuit Monday. If the groups prevail, they would overturn a hotly contested industry victory.

The lawsuit, filed with the federal Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, targets an Environmental Protection Agency decision, announced earlier this year, that exempts large-scale biomass-burning facilities from carbon dioxide limits under the Clean Air Act for three years.

As iWatch News reported earlier this year , some biomass plants pollute the air – and that citizen protests across the country are challenging new plants rising and the EPA exemption. From Florida to Georgia to Massachusetts to Washington state, critics point to environmental harm from biomass plants. Earlier this year, for instance, regulators fined two San Joaquin Valley, California plants $835,000 for sweeping alleged violations of the federal Clean Air Act and local regulations.

Aided by hundreds of millions in stimulus dollars and support from Congress and the EPA, the electricity generating stations are spreading nationwide – burning trees, construction debris, poultry litter and agricultural mass as one piece of a larger push to develop sources of alternative energy. The industry counts some 100 plants in 20 states, with critics saying as many as 100 more are on the drawing board.

Biomass plants, typically located in rural areas, already provide some 2 percent of the nation’s energy, the Department of Energy estimates.  The proportion could reach 15 percent by 2020 as the government awards federal subsidies to help bankroll the growth.

In announcing the three-year deferral, the EPA said it was simultaneously launching a detailed study of the environmental impact of biomass power plants, an emerging energy source portrayed by advocates as a cleaner form of power.  “The agency intends to use this time to seek further independent scientific analysis of this complex issue,” the EPA said.

The EPA deems biomass a renewable energy source that is carbon-neutral. The myriad products biomass plants burn “are organic wastes that will continue to be produced by society,” EPA literature says.

Yet the lawsuit – filed by The Center for Biological Diversity, Conservation Law Foundation, Georgia ForestWatch, Natural Resources Council of Maine and Wild Virginia – contends the EPA’s deferral will harm the environment. The conservation groups are asking the court to overturn the carbon dioxide exemption for wood-fired power plants and other biomass incinerators.

Critics say biomass plants are not carbon neutral, and the organizations behind the lawsuit cite statistics indicating that biomass burning can increase global warming pollution. “The 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 global warming,” the groups said in a statement.

“The EPA is abdicating its regulatory responsibility and writing a blank check to energy companies by allowing massive increases in carbon dioxide from biomass incinerators on the drawing board in Virginia,” said Ernie Reed of Wild Virginia.

Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the EPA “has no authority to just waive the Clean Air Act for the benefit of politically favored industries, as it has for the forest products and bioenergy industries here. The science is clear: Burning our forests for energy makes no sense as a strategy for dealing with climate change.”

On Monday, the EPA said it will review the lawsuit.

“EPA put this deferral in place to take additional time to ensure that greenhouse gas permitting requirements for industries that use biomass is based on the best available science,” the agency said in a statement. “We are continuing to examine the science on this issue and will, later this year, ask the independent Science Advisory Board to peer review its findings.”

The Biomass Power Association said any pollution problems are isolated and not reflective of the larger industry. On Monday, an industry spokeswoman could not be reached to discuss the lawsuit.

Reprinted by Permission © 2022, The Center for Public Integrity®. All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume I, Number 229

About this Author

Senior Reporter iWatch

Greene joined the Center after serving as investigations and government editor for The Miami Herald. He also spent nine years at the paper exposing slave-like conditions in Florida’s farm fields, investigating deadly air cargo plane crashes and uncovering corruption at Miami’s airport. Greene is author of Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, And Margie Richard’s Fight To Save Her Town, and his work has been honored by the Gerald Loeb Awards, National Press Club, Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Headliner Awards. Greene was part of four Herald reporting...