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Understanding U.S. EPA’s "Carbon-Neutral" Ruling on Biomass

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The U.S. EPA, Washington, D.C., USA, this past month officially determined that biomass from sustainably sourced forests used in the pulp and paper industry is carbon neutral. The ruling, which had been promoted by scientists within the forest and paper industries for some time, has prompted several responses since the determination.
 
Domtar Corp., Montreal, Qué., Canada, issued statements from David Struhs, VP, corporate communications and sustainability, said that "just because a resource is renewable does not automatically make it sustainable. Today’s memorandum helps make that important point." 
 
Domtar pointed out the economic value of using biomass feedstock from wood waste materials. The announcement is good news for biomass energy export projects as well as for helping power pulp and paper mills, the company noted. "EPA's direction on this issue promotes the idea of extracting as much value as possible from sustainably harvested biomass, which brings together economic and environmental interests," Struhs added. 
 
According to Two Sides North America, Inc., Chicago, Ill., USA (which promotes the sustainable use and production of paper), there is a vital difference between energy production from fossil fuels and from biomass. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide that has been locked up for millions of years (introducing "new" carbon to the atmosphere). By contrast, burning biomass simply returns to the atmosphere the carbon dioxide that was absorbed as the trees grew, and there is no net release of carbon dioxide if the cycle of growth and harvest is sustained.
 
The forest products industry far exceeds all other industries in the use of renewable biomass energy and is a leader in cogenerating electricity. In 2005, for example, the forest products industry produced more than four-fifths of the total biomass energy generated by all industrial sectors. 
 
Currently, according to Two Sides, some 65% of the energy needed to operate U.S. pulp and paper mills is generated from renewable fuels, primarily biomass. U.S. pulp and paper mills are largely energy self-sufficient, and some mills supply excess (now officially carbon-neutral) energy to the electric utility grid.

The United Steel Workers (USW) union, Pittsburg, Penn., recently released its own analysis of the ruling for the pulp and paper industry, saying that paper facilities essentially use two kinds of fuel—spent pulping liquors (black liquor) that EPA believes do not have any alternative uses, and hog fuel (bark, chips, and sawdust) that EPA believes do have potential uses as products.
 
With respect to the use of black liquor as a fuel, the position taken in this draft framework is that black liquor is carbon neutral. Because pulping liquors not recycled from the recovery operation would have to be manufactured off-site, thus causing additional carbon emissions, EPA’s position is that the use of black liquor as fuel contributes to the sequestration of carbon beyond being carbon neutral. If this position stands, it is an unambiguous positive for the paper industry. 
 
With respect to hog fuel, EPA is concerned that some units might divert (for use as fuel) chips, bark, and sawdust that they previously had sold to be made into products. This is not a significant issue for paper mills that typically have used such materials as fuel, and have not sold them to other manufacturers for use in products. For solid wood operators, this may be a little different. If these units were to divert (for use as fuel) some of the chips, bark, and sawdust that they had previously been using as products, EPA suggests it would not count that part of the biomass use as carbon neutral, because the company presumably would have to cut on additional land to keep up its product flow. EPA would count this as leakage in its mathematical formula.
 
This EPA position does not seem to affect mills directly. Nevertheless, the USW position would be that if additional lands were put to working forest use by the company and managed correctly, there is no reason that biomass from these newly-managed forests would not be either carbon neutral or helpful in the sequestration of carbon. The USW, based on these findings, is considering whether or not this is an issue on which it would like to offer substantive comment to the EPA.
 

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