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United States Biochar Policy and Regulations

May 13, 2010: American Power Act Includes Support for Biochar

IBI is pleased to announce that the American Power Act, a plan to secure America’s energy future, contains several important provisions to support deployment of biochar as a climate mitigation and adaptation tool. Senators Kerry and Lieberman released a discussion draft of the legislative plan on Wednesday.

For the last several years, IBI has been working with members of Congress to incorporate appropriate language on biochar within climate and energy legislation. IBI members and others have helped to educate policymakers about biochar, and why it should be included in US cap-and-trade legislation to help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and as a way to sequester carbon in soil. Soil carbon sequestration through biochar also promises to enhance the US soil resource upon which our food, renewable fuel and fiber supply depend.

The APA contains three specific provision related to biochar. The first provision is under the domestic offset program, under Title II, Subtitle A – Global Warming Pollution Reduction. Section 734, Eligible Projects, under Part D – Offset Credit Program for Domestic Emission Reductions, includes “projects for biochar production and use”.

The second and third biochar provisions fall under Title II, Subtitle C – Achieving Fast Mitigation, Part II – Black Carbon.

Section 2211, Report On Black Carbon Sources, Impacts, And Reduction Opportunities instructs the EPA produce a report that includes a section on “research and development activities needed to better characterize the feasibility of biochar techniques to decrease emissions, increase carbon soil sequestration, and improve agricultural production, and if appropriate, encourage broader application of those techniques”.

Section 2214 under the same Part II, titled Enhanced Soil Sequestration, authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a grant program to “conduct research, develop, demonstrate, and deploy biochar production technology for the purpose of sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.” The program can fund up to 60 facilities and states that the Secretary “shall ensure that facilities receiving grants under this section represent a variety of technologies and feedstocks and are geographically dispersed.”

A section-by-section summary is available here.

The full text of the proposed legislation is available here.

November 4, 2009: US Senate Introduces Carbon Offset Bill which Includes 2 Biochar Provisions

A newly introduced bill in the US Senate provides additional congressional support for biochar projects to qualify for carbon offsets, as well as R&D funding for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for biochar production and utilization projects.

The Clean Energy Partnerships Act of 2009 was introduced November 4 2009 by Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, along with five cosponsors--Senators Max Baucus (MT), Amy Klobuchar (MN), Sherrod Brown (OH), Mark Begich (AK), and Tom Harkin (IA). The bill is designed to ensure that any US domestic cap-and-trade bill provides maximum incentives and opportunities for the US agricultural and forestry sectors to provide high-quality offsets and GHG emissions reductions for credit or financial incentives. Carbon offsets play a critical role in keeping the costs of a cap-and-trade low for society as well as for capped sectors and entities, while providing valuable emissions reductions and income generation opportunities for the agricultural sector. The bill specifically identifies biochar production and use as eligible for offset credits, and identifies biochar as a high priority for USDA R&D, with funding authorized by the bill.

IBI sent a letter of support to the Senators for this bill. Click here to read the full letter.  Additionally, a letter of support was also sent by six major farm organizations which include the National Association of Wheat Growers, National Corn Growers Association, National Farmers Union, National Milk Producers Federation, National Alfalfa and Forage Association, and American Farmland Trust.

Importantly, the Clean Energy Partnerships of 2009 assigns jurisdictional authorities to the Secretary of Agriculture for offsets and emissions reductions opportunities in the agricultural and forestry sectors, with the EPA Administrator in charge of other offset and emissions reductions opportunities. Within 1 year of enactment, the USDA Secretary is authorized by the bill to establish an initial list of project types eligible for inclusion in the domestic offsets program; biochar production and use projects are identified on the initial project list specified by the Congress.

The bill establishes an advisory committee to jointly advise EPA and USDA on scientific and technical advice for offset projects, including agricultural and forestry offset projects. Besides creating offset opportunities for the agricultural sector, the bill establishes a program that utilizes the proceeds from 2% of the allowance allocations to incentivize additional emissions reductions and increased sequestration from the agricultural and forestry sectors. Projects identified for support under this program include projects that are not otherwise economically viable, or projects types not yet mature enough to qualify for offset credits.

One of the bill's subtitles also amends a bioenergy program from the 2002 Farm bill to provide additional opportunities for bioenergy projects to enhance rural economic development and national energy security. The title would utilize .7% of allowance allocation proceeds to fund projects that qualify as biorefineries under this provision; some biochar production facilities might qualify for this program, depending on the bioenergy characteristics of the system.

An R&D title would fund additional research and demonstration projects for agricultural mitigation and adaptation activities relative to climate change programs, using the proceeds from 1.1% of allowance allocations. Biochar production and use as a soil conditioner are specifically identified as high-priority R&D programs for the Secretary to pursue.

The full text is available here.

September 24, 2009: Senator Reid Introduces “WECHAR” Bill to Develop Biochar Technology

On Thursday, September 24, 2009, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and four cosponsors (Senators Max Baucus and John Tester of Montana, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico), introduced the “Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009.” The bill establishes a loan guarantee program to develop biochar technology, initiates a program of biochar landscape restoration projects on public land, and authorizes a competitive grant program to fund research on biochar characteristics, impacts and economics.

In the face of climate change, drought is an ever growing problem in the Western US, exacerbated by water-sucking weeds like tamarisk (salt cedar), which can consume 200 gallons of water a day, per plant. These invasive weeds, along with other excess biomass in the form of beetle-killed trees, forests with dangerous fuel loading, and dense pinyon-juniper thickets that have invaded native sagebrush ecosystems, are ideal feedstocks for biochar.

In addition to providing loans for technology development and grants for research, the legislation directs the U.S. Geological Survey to assess the amount of feedstock in the form of invasive weeds and hazardous fuels on the public lands, the amount of carbon and biochar production potential in that feedstock, and the potential for water savings if it were removed.

Senator Reid’s office indicates that water savings achieved through the bill could be substantial: “The potential for millions of gallons in annual water savings from the elimination of water-robbing invasive tamarisk will be particularly meaningful in Nevada. Elimination of this scourge in our watersheds can offset a significant portion of our water needs.”

By using Western invasive weeds and dangerous fuel loads as feedstock for biochar production, the bill seeks to match undesirable material on the landscape that would otherwise be expensive to eliminate with a process that requires a large source of woody material to make valuable products and provide critical ecosystem services like carbon sequestration. 

Below is a summary of the WECHAR bill. The full text is available here.

Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration (WECHAR) Act of 2009

Section-by-Section

Sec. 1. Short Title. Water Efficiency via Carbon Harvesting and Restoration Act of 2009.

Sec. 2.  Findings.

Sec.3.  Definitions.

Sec. 4. Resource Assessment.
Directs the U.S. Geological Survey to assess the amount of feedstock in the form of invasive weeds and hazardous fuels on the public lands, the amount of carbon and biochar production potential in that feedstock, and the potential for water savings if it were removed.

Sec. 5. Technology Research.

  • Directs the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to develop loan guarantee programs for development of mobile and fixed but temporary biochar production technology that can be deployed in remote locations and use excess biomass as feedstock.
  • Identifies that production units produced under these guarantee programs need to be primarily tasked to work with the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Forest Service on invasive tamarisk in the Mojave Desert, pinyon-juniper buildup in the Great Basin, and bark beetle-killed trees in the Intermountain West.
  • Provides criteria for loan guarantee programs to ensure appropriate use and protection of funds and likelihood of success of the ventures accessing the program.

Sec. 6. Existing Technology.

  • Directs the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture to develop loan guarantee programs for construction or acquisition of existing biochar production technology that can be put directly into use.
  • Identifies that production units produced under these guarantee programs need to be primarily tasked to work with the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Forest Service on invasive tamarisk in the Mojave Desert, pinyon-juniper buildup in the Great Basin, and bark beetle-killed trees in the Intermountain West.
  • Provides criteria for loan guarantee programs to ensure appropriate use and protection of funds and likelihood of success of the ventures accessing the program.

Sec. 7. Deployment.

  • Directs the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to develop 3-year programs for use of the technology developed in section 5, and identifies that initial programs shall be carried out by the Bureau of Land Management using Great Basin excess pinyon-juniper, by the National Park Service using Mojave Desert tamarisk, and by the Forest Service using Intermountain West bark beetle-killed trees.
  • Directs the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture to develop plans for use of the technology developed in section 5, and identifies that these shall use Great Basin excess pinyon-juniper, Mojave Desert tamarisk, and Intermountain West bark beetle-killed trees.

Sec. 8. Application and Market Research.

  • Directs the Secretary of Agriculture to implement competitive grants programs to develop markets for biochar and bioenergy, analyze the production costs versus the economic benefits of biochar production, potential performance of biochar production in carbon sequestration programs, and compares biochar production with other biofuel production systems.
  • Directs the Secretary of Agriculture to implement competitive grants programs to perform full environmental review of biochar production and use, including water savings, environmental benefits of biochar use in agricultural settings, and any potential adverse environmental impacts.
  • Directs the Secretary of Agriculture to implement competitive grants programs to research and analyze potential uses for biochar in landscape restoration in different ecosystems and soil types.

Sec. 9. Authorization of Appropriations.
Authorizes the appropriation of such funds as are necessary to carry out sections 4 through 8.

June 18, 2009: IBI Chairman of the Board, Dr. Johannes Lehmann, Invited to Testify at the US House of Representatives

The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming has invited Dr. Lehmann to testify at a hearing which will discuss how agriculture and forestry in the United States have and will be impacted by the effects of global warming. Dr. Lehmann's testimony will provide scientific information about biochar carbon sequestration for sustainable climate change mitigation and global soil enhancement.

The hearing, entitled "Global Warming’s Growing Concerns: Impacts on Agriculture and Forestry” will take place Thursday June 18, 2009 at 9:30 a.m. in room 2175 Rayburn House Office Building. Please see the invitation as well as Dr. Lehmann's full written testimony.

2008 Farm Bill

Biochar Research and Extension Program in the 2008 Farm Bill
With both houses of the U.S. Congress having passed the 2008 Farm Bill (H.R. 2419, the Food and Energy Security Act of 2008) with a veto-proof margin, the bill was sent to the President on May 15, 2008, for his signature, and final enactment.  

The Farm Bill establishes the first federal-level policy in support of biochar production and utilization programs in the world, and is one of a handful of new, high-priority research and extension areas identified in the Research Title of the 2008 Farm Bill.  

Biochar Program Bill Language:
"Biochar Research.  Grants may be made under this section for research, extension, and integrated activities relating to the study of biochar production and use, including considerations of agronomic and economic impacts, synergies of co-production with bioenergy, and the value of soil enhancements and soil carbon sequestration."

2007 Salazar Harvesting Energy Act

S.1884 – The Salazar Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

A Summary of Biochar Provisions in S.1884: Carbon-Negative Biomass Energy and Soil Quality Initiative for the 2007 Farm Bill

Biochar and Bioenergy Co-Production:  Protecting the Soil Resource and Combatting Global Climate Change

Bioenergy production from agricultural and forestry biomass can boost U.S. energy independence, create additional income streams for agriculture and rural communities, and help combat global climate change by displacing fossil fuel use.  Policies to promote bio-energy production from agricultural products must preserve the soil resources necessary to support adequate U.S. food and fiber production, which provide the basis for a continued strong U.S. economy.

The biochar provisions in S.1884 promote commercial development of technologies that will simultaneously create clean, renewable energy from agricultural and forestry biomass products, while protecting and restoring soil resources and helping to address global climate change.  Unlike most carbon-neutral biomass energy systems, biochar technology is carbon-negative:  it removes net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and stores it in the form of stable soil carbon “sinks”, improving soil fertility, water retention, productivity and crop yields. 

The Biochar Process

Energy and biochar can be co-produced from biomass using thermal processes.  Biochar production processes can potentially utilize virtually any agricultural or forestry waste biomass, including wood chips, corn stover, rice or peanut hulls, tree bark, papermill sludge, and animal manure, for instance.

Under proper production conditions, the biochar can retain up to 50% of the feedstock carbon in a porous charcoal structure. The biochar product is a fine-grained, porous charcoal substance that, when used as a soil amendment, effectively removes net carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  In the soil, biochar provides a habitat for soil organisms, but is not itself consumed by them. Thus, biochar does not disturb the carbon-nitrogen balance, but holds and slowly releases water, minerals and nitrogen to plants.  When used as a soil amendment along with manure or fertilizer, the char significantly improves soil tilth, productivity, and nutrient retention and plant availability.

The energy produced from the remainder of the biomass is used to heat the pyrolysis unit and/or provide energy for on-farm use, such as heat and electricity for lighting, fans, refrigerators, milking machines, etc.  The co-production of biochar from a portion of the biomass feedstock will reduce the total amount of energy that can be produced, but basic soil science research indicates that even at today’s energy and fertilizer prices the net gain in soil productivity is worth more than the value of the energy that would otherwise have been derived from that charcoal. Once the cost of carbon emissions starts to rise and the value of CO2 extraction from the atmosphere is also considered, the balance will become overwhelmingly attractive.

The two predominant biochar production processes under development are externally heated pyrolysis and downdraft gasification.  At small scales, downdraft gasification with air can produce a gas that is immediately burned in an engine to make heat and electricity. This will be practical on farms and at agricultural processing plants at scales from 5kW to 5MW of electricity. At the local or regional agricultural co-op scale, processing 800 to 1000 tons of biomass per day, externally heated pyrolysis or oxygen gasification can be used to make synthesis gas. Syngas can be catalytically converted into liquid fuels including methanol, mixed alcohols that perform like ethanol as a vehicle fuel, ammonia, dimethyl ether, or even Fischer-Tropsch diesel at a larger refinery scale.

An Example of an Agricultural Biochar Production System

An example of a fully-developed system that would be supported by S.1884 is the development of an intermediate scale pyrolysis or thermochemical conversion system which produces energy for on-farm use. The pyrolysis or gasification system can produce bio-oils for transport to a central location for conversion to liquid or gaseous fuels; and/or gases that can be used to produce heat and electricity for on-farm uses.  The biochar produced will have specific surface chemistries that, when applied to soils, will sequester carbon while improving agricultural productivity and replacing some chemical fertilizer inputs.  The permanently sequestered carbon can be traded and sold in greenhouse gas markets.  The system will effectively manage and use on-farm byproducts such as lignocellulosic residue and animal wastes.  The system can also be integrated with chemical conversion and biological conversion in an intermediate scale biorefinery. 

S.1884:  Specific Biochar Provisions in The Harvesting Energy Act of 2007

Title I--Energy

  • Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements: (pg. 3 of S.1884) Provides a total of $150 million for pyrolysis and thermochemical conversion systems to be acquired by agricultural producers, in Section 9006 of the Farm Bill. Annual funding of $30 million is authorized for each of FY 2008-2012. 
  • Bioenergy Program/Feedstock Residue Management Program:  (pg. 7 of S.1884) Provides assistance to cellulosic biorefineries in the form of transition payments in preparation for bioenergy operations; requires that land conversions for such operations ensure the protection and enhancement of soil quality and the prevention of soil erosion and nutrient leaching, and other impacts.  Provides a total of $1.458 billion over the 5-year period FY 2008-2012
  • Research and Demonstration Grants for Biochar Production Systems: (pg. 11 of S.1884) Creates a competitive grants program for research and development to develop and commercialize biochar production systems on multiple scales, including on a single farm, local community, and cooperative scale.  Provides a total of $50 million, with annual funding of $10 million for each of FY 2008-2012. 

Title II—Direct Payments for value-added and Renewable Energy Enterprises

  • Direct Payments for Qualified Value-added Enterprises:  (pg. 15 of S.1884) Provides direct payments of up to $10,000 per producer to match equity investments in value-added enterprises, to include the production and use of biochar as a soil amendment.  Authorizes such funds as are necessary to carry out this section for each of FY 2008-2012.

Title III—Conservation

  • Biochar Demonstration Projects:  (pg. 18 of S.1884) Provides that demonstration projects on a farm and cooperative scale be carried out to demonstrate the advantages of using biochar production systems to improve renewable energy production and protect and enhance soil quality; and for demonstration projects that demonstrate the manner in which biochar may be used to generate agricultural credits for carbon trading within greenhouse gas emissions reduction programs.  Promotes high-priority biochar research and demonstration projects in three areas:  biochar production and commercialization; biochar’s behavior in the environment; and economic and life-cycle analyses of biochar systems.  Provides upwards of $100 million for the section, by authorizing “not less than” $20 million for each of FY2008-2012.
  • Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP): (pg. 22 of S.1884) Provides funds for bioenergy production, including the installation of biochar production units

Title V—Research, Development, and Education

  • High-priority Research and Extension Initiatives: (pg. 24 of S.1884) Provides upwards of $100 million in research grants to promote biochar technology for adding biochar to soil to improve soil fertility, nutrient retention, and carbon sequestration; and the movement of the technology from a pre-commercial to a fully-commercial state.  Authorizes not less than $20 million per year for each of FY 2008-2012.
  • Renewable Energy Research, Education and Educational Program: (pg. 28 of S.1884)  Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish standardized protocols for market-based trading of greenhouse gas emissions reductions from soil carbon sequestration; to provide information on economic opportunities available to producers from such markets; and to provide grants to land-grant colleges and universities to develop curricula and training related to renewable energy fields.  Such sums as are necessary are authorized for this section. 
  • Renewable Electricity and Renewable Fuels Research and Development: (pg. 30 of S.1884) Creates a joint USDA/DOE research program that includes a quantification and verification of the carbon sequestration benefits of various bioenergy and agricultural crops and practices, including the development of models to estimate the carbon sequestration benefits for different crops on different soils; and an additional research and development program to study, among other things, methods to sustainable increase agricultural and forestry crop energy yields while enhancing environmental benefits, in particular improving soil quality and air quality; methods of developing small-scale and distributed renewable energy technologies; and biochar…and other potential non-fossil-fuel-based renewable fertilizers to integrate energy production or agricultural management practices with enhance soil quality and long-term carbon sequestration.  Provides up to $300 million per year for each of FY 2008-2012.