Federalism Today: Biomass Edition

Justice Brandeis famously suggested that states may “serve as a laboratory” for the rest of the country. If this is so, I think it is fair to say that U.S. EPA has not accepted the results of the biomass experiment conducted in Massachusetts. Last year, following receipt of a study regarding the GHG emission implications of various types of biomass fuels, Massachusetts decided to severely restrict the circumstances in which biomass would be considered a renewable fuel.

Earlier this week, EPA decided not to go along with the restrictive approach taken by Massachusetts, and granted a petition to stay application of GHG permitting to biomass facilities, while EPA further studies the issue. Specifically, EPA promised to amend the tailoring rule to exempt biomass facilities for three years. In a letter EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent to Senator Stabenow as part of the announcement, Jackson stated that:

biomass can be part of a national strategy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and efforts are underway to foster the expansion of renewable resources and promote biomass as ways of addressing climate change and enhancing forest management.

It’s one thing for a state to differ from the federal government or other states on matters of policy. However, my guess is that the federal EPA and the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts have pretty much the same policy goal – reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. This is really a question of science. Does use of biomass help reduce GHG emissions? Shouldn’t the answer be the same everywhere?

I’m not a scientist and cannot comment on the reliability of the Massachusetts biomass study. (And I should disclose that our firm has represented the proponent of one of the biomass plants in Massachusetts.) However, it does seem to me that this is one area in which a uniform national policy is the right approach. Let’s give EPA the three years that it apparently needs to sort out the issue, and then have one policy applicable nationwide.

2 thoughts on “Federalism Today: Biomass Edition

  1. Seth, I agree it SHOULD be a question of science, but broader than the one you posed. A systems approach would include “life-cycle” comparison of the alternatives including but beyond their GHG emissions. For example, resource management considerations(cited by EPA), or ag. waste re-use, impacts of fuel production/extraction (drilling,mining, etc.vs. biomass production) relative risks of transport and handling (some pretty big ones there), differences in waste (e.g., ash) management and various potential socioeconomic aspects. Such comparisons could be consistent but give different results in different regions or states.

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