Overview of NCASI biomass activities

Executive Summary 

EPA’s “Tailoring Rule” and questions about biomass “carbon neutrality” required substantial attention from NCASI staff during 2010. NCASI’s work on these topics was used extensively in industry discussions with government agencies, academics and environmental groups in the US and in Canada. It is expected that additional technical work on carbon neutrality and related topics will be needed in 2011 in light of EPA’s recent decision to defer regulation of carbon emissions from biomass for three years and “seek further independent scientific analysis of this complex issue and then to develop a rulemaking on how these emissions should be treated in determining whether a Clean Air Act permit is required.”

Also during 2010, NCASI developed a plan to form a Forest Biomass Cooperative (FBC) in order to accelerate research on key biomass-related topics through cooperative efforts of NCASI members and companies outside the traditional forest sector (e.g., utilities, biofuel producers). The FBC Organizing Committee identified four key areas for accelerated research: (a) EPA’s MACT Regulations; (b) LCA Methods for Biomass Energy Systems; (c) Models of Biomass Supply and Demand; and (d) Sustainability of Wood Production Systems. Implementation of the FBC plan will be a priority during 2011.

EPA’s MACT Regulations 

NCASI’s regular Technical Studies Program includes several tasks addressing important aspects of EPA’s proposed and existing MACT regulations. During 2010, NCASI technical comments on EPA proposed rules demonstrated that some emission limits in the proposed rules are (a) neither achievable nor measureable; and (b) of dubious environmental relevance. In 2011, NCASI will continue to provide technical support on EPA’s MACT rulemakings and “residual risk” assessments. In addition, NCASI will continue its research on topics such as mercury and dioxin emission sources and control options for biomass boilers.

Recently, NCASI initiated a task titled “Biomass Boiler Emissions Database” under FBC auspices. NCASI is obtaining air pollutant test data from biomass boilers within and outside the forest products industry. The data will be checked for their validity. Acceptable data will be entered in a database along with information on source characteristics, supplemental fuel firing, and control technologies in place. The database will be a resource to NCASI and FBC members. Once adequate data are available, NCASI will prepare a report analyzing the data. 

LCA Methods for Biomass Energy Systems 

NCASI’s work on Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is focused on forest-based products and value chains. NCASI has prepared several North American product-specific LCA studies, addressing five different paper products. In addition, NCASI has developed two computer-based carbon footprint estimation tools (FICAT for company-level analyses; FEFPro for product-specific analyses) and is engaged in selected aspects of LCA standard development (e.g., carbon and water footprint protocols being developed by ISO and others).

NCASI recently completed a study titled “Greenhouse Gas and Resource Conservation Benefits of Using Black Liquor for Energy Production.” The study was conducted in the context of industry discussions with EPA regarding the greenhouse gas profiles of forest-based bioenergy systems and EPA concerns regarding biomass “carbon neutrality.” In addition, NCASI is providing technical input to the World Resources Institute and the Council on Sustainable Biomass Production regarding their efforts to develop standards that will be used to characterize the benefits of growing and using biomass.  These standards are anticipated to influence policy development in North America.

In 2011, NCASI will review options for addressing “land use effects” in bioenergy LCAs, an aspect that has been poorly characterized to date. NCASI will identify options that appear most likely to gain traction in the LCA practitioner community. These methods will be reviewed and a report will be prepared summarizing their features. One or more of the methods will then be applied in several pilot studies in order to demonstrate their strengths and limitations, as well as to identify opportunities for improving the methods. NCASI will also develop guidance and tools regarding options for allocating environmental burdens to co-products in LCA’s of forest-based manufacturing systems.

NCASI recently completed a series of carbon footprint analyses to review the implications of the production and use of biomass-based products as substitutes for other products in the marketplace, for the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). This analysis provides perspective on the environmental implications associated with various combinations of biomass-based industries (e.g., sawmill + pellet manufacture), and will be combined with socioeconomic data to provide perspective on the future of forest biomass-based industries in Canada.

Models of Biomass Supply and Demand 

NCASI continues to play a key role in collaboration with the US Forest Service as that agency pursues its goal of enhancing the quality of its Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) program. FIA provides valuable information on (a) forest area and condition, (b) timber and biomass supply potential, (c) growth versus removals, (d) rates of forest conversion to non-forest use, (e) carbon stocks, and (f) biodiversity. NCASI’s role has been to serve as the industry’s primary technical resource on FIA issues, providing technical input on FIA sampling design and statistical methods, and monitoring the FIA public database to identify irregularities and propose solutions. NCASI works with the Society of American Foresters to convene an annual FIA User Group meeting to discuss accountability issues, and with the Forest Service to host the bi-annual FIA Symposium on scientific and technical developments in the FIA program. NCASI also provides online tools for mining the FIA database, including COLE (to prepare custom carbon inventory reports) and GForest, a user-friendly interface for online analysis of FIA data. The Canadian government (NRCan) has also sought NCASI’s input during the ongoing evolution of Canada’s National Forest Inventory.

Recently, NCASI and the US Forest Service completed a project titled “Current and Potential Capabilities of Wood Production Systems in the Southeastern US. Results have been published in a special issue of Biomass and Bioenergy (Vol. 34, No. 12, December 2010). Papers in the special issue provide a framework for addressing challenges and opportunities arising from increasing demands for biomass from southeastern US forests. Experts provide their best assessments of factors influencing the capability of southeastern “wood production systems” to provide a sustainable supply of fiber to meet future demands. A range of issues underlying this framework for the region are addressed, including (a) the silviculture, productivity, and financial returns of pine plantations managed for traditional products and biomass, (b) the area and distribution of lands potentially available for pine plantations, (c) management of short-rotation hardwood systems and their potential contribution to regional fiber production, (d) factors influencing the competitiveness of forestry investments in the Southeast compared to South America and other regions, (e) implications of renewable energy standards for timber markets and fiber supply, and (f) the relationship between carbon sequestration and forest management for traditional products and bioenergy. 

NCASI is initiating a new task, “Wisconsin Forest Sector Assessment for Sustainability” (FSAS). This project will produce scientific and technical information to support policy development related to new and established uses of forest resources for energy in Wisconsin. FSAS is an FBC initiative that will be conducted in partnership with universities, other research institutions, private companies
and state agencies. Phase 1 findings will be presented at a technical session during NCASI’s Northern Regional Meeting in Wausau, Wisconsin on May 19, 2011.

Sustainability of Wood Production Systems  

NCASI’s Forest Environment and Sustainability Program is investigating many aspects of sustainable forest management with a goal of identifying practical options for protecting or enhancing water resources, biodiversity, and soil productivity. Priority research topics include forest certification, ecological impacts of intensive forest management, effectiveness of forestry Best Management Practices for protecting water resources, and habitat relationships of priority wildlife species in managed forests.

NCASI recently completed a meta-analysis of field studies that measured biodiversity responses to biomass harvesting. Forest thinning treatments have generally had positive or neutral effects on diversity and abundance across all taxa (birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates). Higher amounts of coarse woody debris (CWD) remaining after biomass harvesting are generally associated with higher levels of bird diversity and abundance, and invertebrate biomass. The authors hypothesized that operational biomass harvests may not change CWD levels enough to appreciably influence forest biodiversity, especially when following biomass harvest guidelines that require leaving a portion of harvest residues.

NCASI-sponsored field studies are underway to fill information gaps regarding ecological effects of intensive forest management practices and the efficacy of constraints on biomass harvesting. For example, NCASI is collaborating in watershed-scale studies of intensive forestry systems on Weyerhaeuser timberlands in Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina. The research team for these studies recently received a $2 million grant from the US Department of Energy.

NCASI is assessing environmental information needs related to development of eucalyptus plantations as a source of fiber and biomass feedstock in the southern US. NCASI is also assessing the feasibility of developing a practical method for estimating water use by managed forests relative to native vegetation in the same watershed.

Other Activities 

NCASI provides technical support to its members on various topics related to forest bioenergy. During 2010, questions and controversies about the “carbon neutrality” of biomass required substantial attention, both in the US and Canada. NCASI participated in technical meetings on carbon neutrality convened by member companies and various organizations including Environmental Defense Fund, Council on Sustainable Biomass Production, 25X25, Manomet Center for Conservation Science, World Wildlife Fund Canada, Society of American Foresters, US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Energy, Natural Resources Canada, Environment Canada, North Carolina Forestry Association, American Forest and Paper Association, Forest Products Association of Canada, and National Association of Forest Owners.

EPA’s Tailoring Rule, Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule, and other Clean Air Act regulations also required substantial attention from NCASI in 2010. Technical aspects were summarized in several Corporate Correspondent memoranda and addressed in greater detail in comments submitted to EPA and in internal documents prepared for use by NCASI members and their trade associations. In addition, NCASI commented on biomass-related documents prepared by US Department of Energy, Manomet Center for Conservation Science, Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, World Resources Institute, and Council on Sustainable Biomass Production.

NCASI included presentations on biomass topics at its four regional meetings in 2010 (three in the US, and one in Canada). The NCASI West Coast Regional meeting in September featured a half-day workshop on forest biomass issues and information needs.