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The Final Word by Chuck Swann
It is ironic that the world's most plentiful fuel has become the least desirable. Coal is cheap and plentiful, but its air effects have brought it under attack by environmentalists both within and outside governments.

At the moment, the US Environmental Protection Agency is going after big electric utility plants that burn coal. And the EPA's Clean Power Plan is leaving the regulation of the utility power plants up to the states. But the EPA and, probably to a lesser extent, the states, can't be counted on to keep hands off small-source emitters forever. Many pulp and paper mills were built with boilers meant to burn coal for the mills' heat and power needs. This means, inevitably, that every coal-burning mill's turn for tighter regulation is coming.

There are two courses open to these mills. One, wait and comply when the regulations are issued. Two, get the jump on the regulators by converting now to an alternate fuel.

There seem to be two alternate fuel choices open to mills. One, natural gas. Two, biofuels. For mills not near a natural gas pipeline, a good choice would seem to be burning forest residuals generally known as biomass. Burning biomass for heat and steam generation is certainly an environmental step up from coal, but some environmentalists object loudly to burning anything. The pulp and paper industry counters their protests by pointing out that the forests replanted and sustainably managed under its care more than offset the atmospheric effects of burning biomass by sequestering more than an equivalent amount of carbon. The industry maintains that burning biomass is thus carbon neutral.

The industry is convinced. Now the job before the industry is to convince the regulators. It has become something of a legislative fight. And so it was that on August 3, the American Forest and Paper Association sent a letter to the US Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency endorsing the stand of 154 members of the US House of Representatives in supporting biomass as a sustainable energy source. AF&PA said, "This letter from House members joins support from Senators, scientists and agencies around the world in recognizing the carbon neutrality of biomass energy."

Washington, DC, is a pretty busy place these days--or unbusy, depending on your point of view--and when any final rulings on biomass may be issued is anybody's guess. But be assured that industry watchdogs are watching. And to quote a famous baseball player, "It ain't over 'til it's over; and it ain't over." Stay tuned.

Chuck Swann is the senior editor of Paperitalo Publications. He can be reached by email at chuck.swann@taii.com.

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