EPA ponders biogenic emissions reporting

By Kris Bevill | August 27, 2010
Posted Sept. 20, 2010

The U.S. EPA is in the process of evaluating comments it received in response to a call for information regarding the inclusion of biogenic emissions when accounting for a facility's total amount of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Earlier this year, the EPA finalized its Tailoring Rule, which set in motion the process of holding facilities accountable for GHG emissions in addition to pollutants already regulated by the agency. When the Tailoring Rule was initially proposed, the EPA exempted biogenic emissions—emissions that occur as a result of the combustion or decomposition of biological materials—from GHG accounting approaches. But when the final rule was announced, the EPA had reversed its stance and included those emissions in its accounting framework.

Hundreds of comments were submitted to the EPA offering opinion and technical information regarding this decision. Many comments were from concerned citizens, some who support exempting biogenic emissions and others who believe there is no such thing as a carbon-neutral emission. Representatives from affected sources, including landfills, wastewater treatment facilities, livestock management facilities and ethanol production facilities, also filed comments to argue that biogenic emissions have been historically excluded from GHG emission calculations and deviating from that standard would disrupt an internationally acceptable protocol.

The Renewable Fuels Association commented that the EPA's own long-standing policy has been to exclude biogenic emissions from regulations that require accounting and reporting of GHG emissions. Geoff Cooper, RFA's vice president of research, said including biogenic emissions in GHG calculations would be major blow for every ethanol producer in the U.S. because the majority of CO2 emissions produced at ethanol facilities occur as a result of fermenting corn. "Every bushel of corn produced releases 17 pounds of CO2, so they are significant emissions and including them in the Tailoring Rule or any other greenhouse gas accounting framework greatly exaggerates the carbon intensity of our industry," he said.

The Tailoring Rule already subjects many of the country's large ethanol facilities—100 MMgy or larger—to the EPA's Title V and Prevention of Significant Deterioration permitting process because those facilities produce more than 100,000 tons per year of GHG emissions through fossil fuel use. But if the EPA's decision stands to include biogenic emissions in GHG accounting practices, "virtually the entire industry is going to be affected," Cooper said. Even medium-size facilities, those with production capacities of between 40 and 60 MMgy, would have GHG emission levels that far exceed the 100,000 ton threshold.

It is not clear when the EPA might conclude its analysis of comments regarding biogenic emissions calculations and either recant its decision or maintain the rule as it was finalized. The deadline to file comments was Sept. 13, but the agency has not set a deadline for completion of its analysis, according to Cooper.

The RFA is hopeful that the EPA will realize accounting for CO2 emissions from biological materials is counterproductive and will negatively impact all biomass-using industries. "The inclusion of biogenic emissions annihilates any rationale for doing a renewable electricity standard, so it's a much broader issue than just biofuels," he said. The possibilities for hampering a growing renewable energy industry become even greater if the EPA's regulations were to be carried over into some type of national cap and trade system, he added. "If an ethanol producer has to have offsets for biogenic emissions, then it hits everybody hard. That's why this was such an important issue for us. The implications go far beyond a Tailoring Rule."

Some commenters argued that not only should biogenic emissions from fermentation be accounted for, the entire life cycle of the crop should also be included. This life-cycle analysis suggestion has been introduced previously, and has largely been discredited by the industry as an inconceivable notion. "There are some folks who are advocating following these carbon molecules from the very beginning of the life cycle through the very end," Cooper said. "Obviously, that is not practical, it's not scientifically justified and, frankly, it's lunacy to think our industry could do something like that." So far, fossil fuel producers are not being subjected to the same type of lifecycle emissions scrutiny as biofuels. Cooper said that highlights the inconsistent treatment of the two types of fuels. "We're talking about recycled emissions when we talk about biogenic emissions—carbon that was recently in the atmosphere and is then temporarily sequestered and re-released. It's very different than carbon that has been sequestered for millions of years and would remain there if it were not being taken out to burn for gasoline. But right now, EPA and the environmental movement are so dialed in on the carbon cycle of biofuels that petroleum continues to get a free pass."

While including biogenic emissions in GHG calculations could have a devastating impact on the biofuels industry, maintaining the international status quo and continuing to exempt those emissions could jumpstart a movement toward utilizing renewable sources for energy at facilities. Cooper said he believes maintaining the carbon neutrality of biomass will serve as a catalyst for the ethanol industry to use biomass sources rather than fossil fuels such as natural gas in their boilers. "Particularly if you're a plant that's just over the 100,000-ton threshold, if you can get under that threshold by augmenting your fossil fuels with a little bit of biomass, there's a good reason to do that," he said. "If they don't exempt biogenic emissions, there's no reason to do that and we'll see the industry use more fossil fuels."