Court Upholds Permit for Biomass Cogeneration Project

The Washington Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Department of Ecology’s determination that the Port Townsend Paper Corporation’s proposed forest biomass cogeneration project would not result in significant environmental impacts, and that the preparation of an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) was not required.  PT Air Watchers et al. v. State of Washington et al., No. 88208-8, (Wash., Feb. 27, 2014).  Environmental groups alleged that Ecology failed to properly analyze the impacts of potential greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions from the proposed project under Washington’s State Environmental Protection Act (“SEPA”).

Cogeneration Project Challenged

The Port Townsend Paper Corporation owns and operates a kraft pulp and paper mill in Port Townsend, WA.  The mill burns wood fuel and fuel oil to produce steam for its pulp and paper processes.  In 2010, the mill applied to Ecology for a notice of construction (“NOC”) permit, seeking approval to construct a cogeneration project at its existing mill.  The cogeneration project would increase the firing efficiency in the mill’s boiler in order to burn primarily woody biomass to produce increased steam for a new steam turbine.  The steam turbine would generate less than 25 MW of electricity that would potentially be sold to a power distribution system.

The mill prepared an environmental review checklist under SEPA.  The mill estimated that the proposed project would result in a reduction of 1.8 million gallons of fossil fuel usage per year.  It concluded that the burning of woody biomass instead of fossil fuels would produce a net reduction of GHG emissions.  Ecology agreed with the mill’s conclusion and issued an order approving the NOC.  Environmental groups subsequently appealed Ecology’s decision.

Legislative Preference for Burning of Woody Biomass over Burning of Other Fuels

The Washington Supreme Court unanimously upheld Ecology’s determination that the proposed biomass cogeneration project would not have significant environmental impacts.  The Court utilized RCW 70.235.020(3), “the legislature’s preference for the burning of woody biomass over the burning of other fuels,” as a starting point in analyzing whether Ecology had properly considered the project’s impact on GHG emissions.  Ecology argued that replacing fossil fuels with woody biomass would reduce the net emission of carbon dioxide.  “This is because biomass is part of the Earth’s ongoing carbon cycle, in which plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to build plant material, then release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere when they die and decay.  Left on the forest floor, biomass will naturally decompose to form carbon dioxide.”  See Ecology’s brief at page 10.  In short, the burning of biomass does not add to the total amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The Court held that Ecology properly concluded there were no significant environmental impacts due to the project’s net reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.  The Court’s decision will help to streamline the permitting process for future similar biomass projects in Washington.

If you have any questions about this news alert, please contact the authors listed above or the Riddell attorney with whom you normally consult.

The Riddell Williams Environmental Group has played a key part in addressing some of the region’s most challenging environmental issues.  Our group’s clients include utilities, pulp and paper manufacturers, petroleum companies, regional energy companies, airlines and airfreight carriers, steel manufacturers, waste management companies, technology businesses, real estate development partnerships, private landowners and some of the state’s leading environmental groups.

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