Regulations can help drought-stricken biomass producers

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Sunday, March 2, 2014

Between more frequent droughts, environmental rules and tricky water rights, growers of biomass energy crops will become more needy for water. They are also becoming more dependent on the regulations that pertain to it, says a recent paper.Jody Endres, a professor of bioenergy, environmental and natural resources law at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, said biofuel crop production in the Plains states will be especially trying as competition over water becomes a more pressing issue. Producers will need to change their practices to save and protect water.”We’re going to have to figure out how we prioritize growing crops for bioenergy,” said Endres, who also works at the Energy Biosciences Institute, a collaboration involving the University of Illinois; the University of California, Berkeley; Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and energy company BP PLC.

Endres suggests that growers convert to perennials, plants that regrow year after year without reseeding and require fewer inputs. Endres also suggests that companies take advantage of a federal program to regulate nitrogen pollution from fertilizer runoff, like EPA’s efforts to manage pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

“Although the agricultural lobby historically has fought any environmental regulation, biomass producers actually may stand to profit from nutrient trading regimes being put in place to meet more stringent water quality standards because perennial systems require less inputs and foster better soil conditions,” Endres writes.

Complicated state laws will make scarce water resources even more competitive.

About 20 percent of “impaired” (the U.S. EPA term for polluted) waters are due to nutrient pollution. This runoff, made up of nitrogen and phosphorus in fertilizers, can lead to harmful algae blooms in still waters. Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico are clear examples of nutrient pollution’s ability to damage the fishing and tourism industries, she said.

EPA is in a tricky situation when it comes to enforcing water quality rules over states. EPA’s efforts to clean up Florida’s waterways in the last four years led them to be criticized by environmentalists and industry alike and led to a loss in federal court in 2012. This has led the agency to be more reluctant to use its authority to oversee state water quality standards.

Texas is another example of how complex water laws can be, said Endres. Differing rules about “percolating” groundwater, surface waters and diffuse surface water before channelization make it difficult for producers to plan how they will irrigate.

Texas is also susceptible to drought and is likely to be the home of a growing demand for biomass. Historically, Texas policymakers have treated agriculture favorably, she said.

Endres also encourages producers to comply with voluntary sustainability standards, like Europe’s International Sustainability and Carbon Certification program. The Agriculture Department also awards funds from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program based in part on good water management.

The paper was pu