State energy officials are drafting controversial regulations that could designate fuel derived from felling trees and clearing brush in forests as a form of renewable energy, allowing it to qualify for the same type of subsidies as solar and wind power.
The proposed rules, which stem from a provision in a 2014 law supported by the logging industry, would provide financial incentives for the energy source known as woody biomass — wood chips and pellets made from tree trunks, branches, sawdust, and other plant matter.
Environmental advocates oppose the rules, saying they would increase carbon emissions, create more pollution in the form of toxic particulate matter, and lead to greater deforestation. Trees and plants grow by absorbing carbon dioxide; when they’re burned, they release the heat-trapping gas back into the atmosphere.
In a recent letter to state energy officials, eight environmental groups said the proposed regulations would undermine another state law that requires significant cuts to carbon emissions, as underscored by a recent Supreme Judicial Court ruling.
“As we are well on the way to runaway global warming that will have drastic consequences for the planet and all species, we should not be incentivizing any technologies that increase carbon pollution,” wrote officials from the Conservation Law Foundation, Massachusetts Sierra Club, Environmental League of Massachusetts, and other groups.
The advocates said they’re considering suing the state if the administration approves the biomass subsidies.
“Burning biomass emits significantly more carbon pollution than burning fossil fuels . . . and harvesting trees for fuel reduces the ability of forests to take carbon out of the atmosphere,” the groups wrote.
Proponents consider biomass a form of renewable energy, as long as the trees that are removed are regrown.
They note that the law requires that chippers, pellet producers, and other companies that provide fuel for biomass facilities use “sustainable forestry practices,” including the replanting of trees.
Supporters also say there’s little threat of deforestation in Massachusetts, and that the law requires users of biomass energy to employ emissions-control systems that reduce greenhouse gases to at most half the level of a similar system using natural gas.
“Biomass is the ultimate renewable energy, because it grows and grows,” said Charles Thompson, president of the Massachusetts Forest Alliance in Marlborough, a trade association for foresters, landowners, and the logging industry. “It’s not making climate change worse.”
Increased use of biomass would help displace fossil fuels, Thompson said, rather than supplant solar or wind projects, which still contribute a relatively small amount of the state’s energy.
“If you compare it to fossil fuels, and what it truly takes to locate them, extract them, bring them to market, and combust them, using wood is much better for the environment,” Thompson said.
Other proponents of the state subsidies argue that it would actually encourage the growth of forests.
“Without incentives, people who own forests might do something else with the land other than growing new forests,” said Ben Bell-Walker, a spokesman for the Biomass Thermal Energy Council, an advocacy group for the biomass industry in Washington, D.C. “They might develop the land instead.”
State energy officials declined to comment on the proposed regulations.
In a statement, they said they’re using the 2014 law as a guide and have held eight public meetings on the issue.
Biomass, they noted, is among several “thermal energy” technologies under consideration for state incentives. Thermal energy is derived from heat.
“The Baker-Polito administration remains committed to diversifying the commonwealth’s energy portfolio through a balanced approach of renewable energy investments,” said Kevin O’Shea, a spokesman for the Department of Energy Resources, which is drafting the regulations.
Their decision on the subsidies comes as the state struggles to cut carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as required by the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act.
In May, the state’s highest court ordered the Baker administration to enact specific policies to meet the law’s requirements. Administration officials have said the state is on course to meet its obligations, but environmental advocates have released reports raising doubts, especially given the closure of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in 2019.
Environmental groups noted the state is already facing an increase in greenhouse gas emissions from New England power plants. In 2015, the plants released 5 percent more carbon dioxide than the year before, the first year-to-year increase since 2010, according to ISO New England, an independent company in Holyoke that operates the region’s power grid.
“The bottom line is that the science is clear: Burning wood for energy is a major source of carbon emissions,” said Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Public Integrity in Pelham, an advocacy group that opposes the new regulations. “We shouldn’t be offering subsidies for something that makes climate change worse, not to mention other pollution.”
She and others argue that there’s no way for Massachusetts regulators to ensure that loggers are properly replanting trees in Maine and New Hampshire, where many of the chips and pellets for biomass fuel are produced.
Advocates also note that the spread of housing, roads, and other development has left more of Massachusetts covered by asphalt, concrete, or other impermeable materials. In 2014, 22 percent of the state was paved, up from 14 percent in 1981, according to a Mass Audubon report.
Philip Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, and one of the signatories of the recent letter to regulators, said the state should be focusing on promoting energy sources that don’t produce carbon emissions.
The state, he added, lacks the resources to ensure that all biomass facilities are filtering their emissions enough to comply with the law.
“We need to be aiming a lot higher to address climate change,” Duffy said.David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.