Green Group Appeals California Biomass Proposal

Green Group Appeals California Biomass Proposal

Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit environmental organization based in Arizona, is appealing a December 2012 Placer County Planning Commission decision to adopt a conditional use permit and certify the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the Cabin Creek Biomass Energy Facility. Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) alleges that the EIR for the 2.2-megawatt biomass power incinerator “does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act.”

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Cabin Creek biomass incinerator is proposed for a site two miles from 16,000-resident Truckee and within 1,500 feet of the nearest residence. The facility had previously been proposed for Kings Beach on the northern shore of Lake Tahoe but was relocated following fierce opposition from community residents. 

The goal of the Center’s Climate Law Institute, which is undertaking the appeal through the efforts of its San Francisco-based Senior Attorney Kevin Bundy, is “to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollution to protect biological diversity, the environment, and public health.” 

Biomass incineration, “although often touted as a ‘clean’ alternative to fossil-fueled generation, has potentially significant environmental impacts of its own,” according to the Center’s comments on the project’s Final EIR. With 450,000 members and online activists, Center for Biological Diversity is one of the few large national environmental organizations to take legal action against the recent rash of biomass power incinerator proposals across the US.

“Absent proper consideration of these impacts—particularly air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and effects on forest habitat associated with the harvest and combustion of woody biomass, decision-makers and the public may be misled as to the benefits and environmental drawbacks of a biomass project,” according to Bundy’s comments.

CBD’s appeal cites concerns with the EIR’s accounting for carbon dioxide emissions, the description of its wood fuel mix, and lack of analysis of ecosystem impacts from logging, stating that the EIR “fails to adequately disclose and analyze the Project’s potential effects on forest management, forests, and habitat.”

The California Environmental Quality Act “requires an evaluation of a project’s physical impact on the environment,” states CBD, which the EIR does not adequately undertake, particularly in regards to greenhouse gas emissions. Instead the EIR simply claims the biomass facility won’t violate existing laws. Bundy’s comments maintain that a promise not to violate laws isn’t the same as studying the actual environmental impacts of a particular facility.

A July 2012 Wall Street Journal article revealed that out of 107 biomass power incinerators investigated, “85 have been cited by state or federal regulators for violating air-pollution or water-pollution standards at some time during the past five years.”

CBD refers to biomass incineration as “especially carbon-intensive, and has been shown to cause increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations over a period of decades to centuries depending on the feedstock.” Bundy refers to AB 32, whose goal is to “to reduce California greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020” and charges that the EIR therefore “must analyze the cumulative significance of the Project’s emissions in light of the emissions reductions needed to avoid contributing to the actual physical impacts of climate change.”

CBD issues the reminder that even AB 32 may be insufficient and to avoid the “devastating effects” of runaway climate change “industrialized countries will have to reduce emissions by 25-40% below 1990 levels by 2020.”

The controversial practice of forest “thinning” for so-called “fire fuels reduction”—which critics denounce as simply more commercial logging—results in “long-term atmospheric CO2 increases if combusted for bioenergy.” The collection and burning of high-nutrient “forest residuals” left over after logging for biomass energy also “may affect overall greenhouse gas emissions.”

Much of the Center’s criticism of the Cabin Creek EIR focuses on its claims that all the wood to be burned in the incinerator would otherwise be burned in the forest following logging operations. CBD criticizes the woody fuels description as “inconsistent, internally contradictory, and inadequate” to support that assumption.

While the EIR maintains that 95% of the wood would be burned in the open, “numerous other statements in the EIR [make] clear that not all forest-sourced materials are disposed of by burning.” The comments refer to a US Forest Service document calculating that “combustion efficiencies range from 75 to 95 percent” and in the Western US only “85 or 90 percent of fuels would be consumed in a burn pile.”

CBD’s comments also point out that the EIR language allows for the burning of “urban wood waste” in the biomass incinerator, which could otherwise be repurposed, recycled or disposed of without combustion.

“If a mere 5 percent of Project fuels would not otherwise have been burned in the open,” read Bundy’s comments, “or the combustion efficiency of burn piles falls short by just five percentage points, then the Project’s greenhouse gas emissions would fail to achieve the efficiency threshold adopted in the EIR.”

The Center broaches the issue of competition for a limited fuel source, noting that the EIR “acknowledges that some of this material is currently being used as fuel by other biomass facilities” and that other incinerators will have to “satisfy their demand for those fuels from other sources.” The end result of this increased competition would likely be more cutting and burning of forests. CBD calls for an analysis of the overlapping “woodsheds” of operating and proposed biomass facilities in the region to understand the “cumulative interactions” between facilities and the “overall effect on fuel demand.”

An appeal hearing will be scheduled in the coming months.