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EPA Chief Signals Push To Declare Wood Energy Carbon-Neutral On N.H. Visit

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EPA on Twitter

During his New Hampshire visit Tuesday, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt signaled plans for new federal energy policies that could bolster a struggling regional industry – biomass.

In a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu, Pruitt suggests the agency plans to add biomass, including wood and other plant-based fuels, to its “‘all of the above’ energy portfolio.” (Read the full letter below.)

“As you and I both recognize, continuing to be responsible stewards of our nation’s forests and lands while utilizing all domestic forms of biomass to meet our energy needs are mutually compatible goals,” Pruitt wrote.

The letter suggests the EPA is working toward recognizing biomass energy as carbon-neutral in "appropriate circumstances.”

People who attended a closed-door forestry roundtable with Pruitt on Tuesday say he seems poised to begin a rulemaking process, which would include public input, to officially set those parameters.

But after years of review, EPA scientists still haven’t reached a consensus on how to do that.

Even environmental groups disagree on the issue – and with good reason, says forestry researcher John Gunn at the University of New Hampshire. He says the polluting effects of burning wood are complex, and hinge on the kind and amount of material harvested, how it’s used, and what fuel it replaces.

"If you're talking about, truly, residues from sawmills or the tops and limbs that were left over from harvest anyway, those have very good greenhouse gas emissions profiles,” he says, “compared to other scenarios where you're harvesting whole trees specifically for biomass energy uses, and those trees could have remained standing.

"That all matters in terms of the outcome, in terms of whether or not making energy from wood is better for the atmosphere than making energy from a fossil fuel,” Gunn says.

New Hampshire currently has about half a dozen working biomass power plants. They’re a major market for low-grade timber products that once went to New England’s pulp and paper mills, most of which have now closed.

Read Pruitt's Feb. 13 letter to Sununu about biomass and forestry policy: 

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.

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