Kelsi S. Bracmort
Specialist in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy
The use of biomass as an energy feedstock is emerging as a potentially viable alternative to address U.S. energy security concerns, foreign oil dependence, rural economic development, and diminishing sources of easily accessible conventional energy. Biomass (organic matter that can be converted into energy) may include food crops, crops grown specifically to produce energy (e.g., switchgrass or prairie perennials), crop residues, wood waste and byproducts, and animal manure. Most legislation involving biomass has focused on encouraging the production of liquid fuels from corn. Efforts to promote the use of biomass for power generation have focused on wood, wood residues, and milling waste. Comparatively less emphasis has been placed on the use of non-corn-based biomass feedstocks—other food crops, non-food crops, crop residues, animal manure, and more—as renewable energy sources for liquid fuel use or for power generation. This is partly due to the variety, lack of availability, and dispersed location of non-corn-based biomass feedstock. The technology development status and costs to convert non-corn-based biomass into energy are also viewed by some as an obstacle to rapid technology deployment.
To aid understanding of the role of biomass as an energy resource, this report investigates the characterization of biomass in legislation. For over 30 years, the term biomass has been a part of legislation enacted by Congress for various programs, indicating some interest by the general public and policymakers in expanding its use. This legislation has provided financial incentives to develop technologies that use biomass. How biomass is defined influences decisions about the types of crops that are grown, where they are grown, and potential preferred energy uses, among other things. There have been 14 biomass definitions included in legislation and the tax code since 2004.
One point of contention is whether the term is defined to include biomass from federal lands. Some argue that removal of biomass from these lands may lead to ecological harm. Others contend that biomass from federal lands can aid the production of renewable energy to meet certain mandates (e.g., the Renewable Fuel Standard) and that removal of biomass can enhance forest protection from wildfires. Forthcoming discussions about energy, particularly legislation involving the Renewable Fuel Standard or energy tax incentives, may prompt further discussion about the definition of biomass.
Bills introduced in the 113th Congress (H.R. 3084, S. 1267) and the 112th Congress (e.g., S. 781, H.R. 1861) would modify the biomass definition. However, little legislative action has occurred regarding the definition of biomass in either the 113th or 112th Congresses. This report lists biomass definitions enacted by Congress in legislation and the tax code since 2004 and definitions contained in legislation from the 111th Congress (the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, H.R. 2454; the American Clean Energy Leadership Act of 2009, S. 1462; the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, S. 1733; and the discussion draft of the American Power Act). CRS discussion of the similarities and differences among the definitions is provided.
Date of Report: November 26, 2013
Number of Pages: 20
Order Number: R40529
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