Get enough members of Congress together and you can actually accomplish something.
Oregon's delegation, along with representatives from several other states, proved that last week when the Environmental Protection Agency reversed its puzzlingly stubborn course on how to regulate the fledgling industry that burns logging slash and other biomass to produce heat and electricity.
Although what the EPA did could perhaps better be described as pulling into a rest area rather than turning around.
The issue that spurred both of Oregon's senators, and five of its six
congressman, to lobby EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is a draft version
of an EPA carbon emissions rule that would have treated biomass as a
fossil fuel, no different than coal or natural gas.
The Oregon lawmakers rightly complained that the EPA's proposal, if enacted, likely would stifle the biomass industry.
Industry leaders say investors were reluctant because it wasn't clear
whether the proposed EPA rule would make it impossible to operate
biomass plants profitably.
They were also concerned that such plants, if classified as equivalent
to coal-burning generators, would not qualify for tax credits or other
incentives lavished on other renewable energy sources such as solar and
Last week Jackson announced that EPA would defer for three years its decision on how to classify biomass plants.
EPA officials will continue to study the issue to determine whether, as
biomass proponents contend, burning slash and other biomass is
carbon-neutral since the material would release carbon dioxide whether
it is burned or left to rot.
Carbon emissions aside, burning biomass is preferable to burning coal
because the former releases much less sulfur, mercury and nitrogen
oxides into the atmosphere.
The benefits of biomass aren't limited to emissions, either.
Unlike mining coal, harvesting biomass can actually improve the
environment. One of the major potential sources - including in Baker
County - is overcrowded forests.
In Central and Eastern Oregon, hundreds of thousands of acres of
forest, both public and private, are vulnerable to unnaturally severe
wildfires and insect infestations due to the surplus of trees.
Thinning these woods, leaving the biggest and healthiest trees, in
addition to producing a supply of biomass, can preserve wildlife
habitat and protect sources of clean water.
This is a key plank in Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's campaign to rejuvenate the state's forests and create jobs.
Neither will happen, though, unless there is a network of plants in the
state that will buy biomass, and that are close enough to the sources
that trucking the stuff is economically feasible.
The EPA's deferral is a good start. We hope the agency concludes, after
its three-year study, that in terms of pollution, burning biomass is
part of the solution, not the problem.