July 19, 2013

Ruling aims to rein in biomass plant pollution

Federal court strikes down previous exemption from greenhouse gas regulations

In the forests of Allendale County is a wood-burning power plant with the capacity to release tons of pollution that many other industrial plants must control.

Under construction for most of the past two years, the Allendale plant is one of an estimated 20 wood-burning plants nationally that took advantage of a 2011 federal decision exempting biomass factories from new greenhouse gas regulations.

But a federal court recently threw out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s exemption, a ruling cheered by environmentalists as a way to protect air quality with tighter pollution controls. In its decision, the federal appeals court in Washington cited the Allendale plant as having had permission to emit “more pollution than it otherwise would have” if the deferral had not been allowed.

So far, it’s uncertain how broadly the ruling will affect existing biomass plants, such as the one at Allendale, or those planned for the future, but environmentalists say tighter regulation is on the way. Existing plants that were built without going by the tougher greenhouse gas rules will be subject to lawsuits if they don’t comply with the new standards, predicted Ann Weeks, an attorney who argued the case for the Clean Air Task Force.

“This important decision will reduce respiratory ailments, protect forests and help ensure a healthier, more livable climate,” said Kevin Bundy, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of numerous conservation groups that sued to overturn the deferral.

Biomass facilities are industrial plants that some renewable energy advocates tout as a way to reduce reliance on coal-fired power stations. Many burn tree limbs and other wood waste, as well as whole trees.

But unlike other forms of renewable power, such as wind and solar, wood-fired biomass plants release carbon dioxide, tiny soot particles and smog-forming nitrogen oxides. By some accounts, they release more carbon dioxide than coal plants, a major source of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. And burning trees to make energy could one day convert southern forests to open, denuded patches of land, environmentalists contend.

“You are still combusting a fuel that has carbon in it when you’re talking about biomass,” said Meleah Geertsma, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Chicago. “The difference with wind and solar is you don’t have those combustion-related emissions and you’re truly not creating more carbon dioxide at that point of generation.”

A key question now is whether the EPA can – or will – take steps to keep the exemption in place permanently. The 2011 decision to defer biomass plants from greenhouse gas rules was to last only three years, while the agency studied their impacts, according to the EPA Inside weekly report.

Nationally, industries are asking the EPA to develop a permanent waiver for biomass plants, but environmentalists say the court has spoken and biomass plants should be regulated like other industrial facilities. The court found that the EPA’s basis for exemption biomass plants was not adequate.

Even so, wood-burning power plants, which are relatively new to South Carolina, could bring needed jobs to rural areas, the industry’s boosters say.

A 2012 state study recommends changing South Carolina law to help develop biomass plants and other renewable energy businesses in the economically depressed Interstate 95 corridor. The study followed talk by politicians of developing a “biomass corridor” through parts of 17 counties from Dillon to Hardeeville, one of the poorest regions of the state.

The Allendale power plant has an agreement to sell power to the state-owned Santee Cooper utility during the next 30 years, as well as from a sister-wood-burning plant in Dorchester County, according to EDF Energies Nouvelles Co., a corporation that owns the plants. Both are to be operating by mid-September, EDF’s Bill Smith said.

He declined comment on how the court ruling would impact operations or discuss plant emissions. According to documents filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, the Allendale plant has permission to release up to 50 percent more nitrogen oxide into the air than it would have before the 2011 EPA exemption on biomass plants.

South Carolina has numerous types of biomass operations, many of which are used in tandem with other industrial processes. Not all burn wood. But in a handful of cases, entire plants are being developed to provide power from wood waste or entire trees.

All told, the state has three plants that burn biomass for the primary purpose of producing electricity, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Another 130 industrial facilities have approval to burn biomass in existing boilers – 69 of which burn wood, according to DHEC.

At least two biomass boilers were exempted in South Carolina, according to DHEC.

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