Appeals court again rejects appeals over air permit for biomass-fired cogen

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 23 rejected a request from environmental groups for the full appeals court to review a Sept. 2 decision by a three-judge panel of the court to uphold an air permit issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a biomass-fired project in California.

The three-judge panel had denied a petition for review of a decision of EPA granting Sierra Pacific Industries Inc. a prevention of significant deterioration permit for construction of a new biomass-burning power plant at the company’s lumber mill in California. The panel held that the EPA did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in granting the permit to Sierra Pacific.

Addressing petitioner Helping Hands Tools’ claims that the EPA was required to consider solar power and a greater natural gas mix as clean fuel control technologies in the best available control technology (BACT) analysis for pollutants subject to Clean Air Act regulation, the panel held that because the EPA properly took the requisite hard look at Sierra Pacific’s proposed design and the key purpose of burning its own biomass waste, the EPA reasonably concluded that consideration of solar or increased natural gas would disrupt that purpose and redefine the source. Addressing petitioner Center for Biological Diversity’s claims raised in response to the supplemental greenhouse gas BACT analysis, the panel deferred to the agency’s determination because EPA was largely relying on its own guidance, acting at the “frontiers of science,” the Dec. 23 decision noted.

Said that Dec. 23 finding: “Sierra Pacific’s application went through an extensive process to issue a reasoned PSD permit for its new biomass burning boiler. EPA properly defined the project and rejected control technologies that redefined the project with thoughtful and reasonable explanations. The Bioenergy BACT Guidance, as applied by EPA to the greenhouse gas emissions from Sierra Pacific’s new facility, is rational and is consistent with EPA’s prior practice. The guidance relies extensively on the continually evolving analysis of the environmental effect of different biomass fuels in the ever-developing field of climate-change science. It is not our place to interfere with EPA’s expertise when the record shows that its endeavors were reasonable.”

The decision added: “This is the first time we have reviewed EPA’s doctrine of “redefining the source.” It also appears to be the first time that EPA’s framework for evaluating the best available control technology for greenhouse gas emissions from facilities burning biomass fuels is considered by any circuit in the United States. We hold that EPA did not act arbitrarily or capriciously in granting a PSD permit to Sierra Pacific pursuant to that framework.”

Sierra Pacific owns and operates a lumber manufacturing facility in Anderson, California, situated at the northern end of the Central Valley in Shasta County. In March 2010, Sierra Pacific filed an application for a PSD permit with EPA in order to construct a new cogeneration unit at its mill. The new unit was designed to burn biomass fuels in a boiler to produce steam used to turn turbine blades to generate 31 MW of electricity and to heat existing lumber dry kilns.

Fuel for the unit would come primarily from wood wastes from Sierra Pacific’s own lumber mills, as well as other readily available sources of agricultural and urban wood wastes. The new boiler replaces a smaller existing boiler at the Anderson Facility. The smaller boiler could burn only 60,000 bone-dry tons (BDT) of the 160,000 BDT of wood waste the Anderson Facility annually produces. The new boiler has the increased capacity to burn up to 219,000 BDT of wood waste. Additionally, the boiler will utilize natural gas for the limited purpose of startup, shutdown, and flame stabilization.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.