Biomass Under Fire


The Tree-Burning Lobby’s Legislative Long Game

August 1, 2016


In the last few months, two amendments have been placed in Congressional bills that would force EPA to treat tree-burning power plants as if they have zero emissions – even though biomass power plants emit more carbon pollution per megawatt-hour than coal plants.  These amendments were devised, promoted, and probably largely written by lobbyists for the tree-burning industry, most notably, the National Alliance of Forest Owners, or NAFO.

The first amendment is one in the Senate Energy bill that tells EPA and USDA to adopt a consistent policy that “reflects the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy” – as if that were a real, demonstrated thing (Tip: it’s not).

If you are thinking that biomass industry lobbyists love this language, you’d be right – to a point. David Tenny, head of NAFO, issued a statement (now pulled from the web, but available here) saying the language is a good start, but it doesn’t go far enough:

The National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) worked very closely with Senators Collins, King, and Klobuchar on the language of the amendment.  At the request of Energy Committee minority members, the amendment includes a proviso that forest biomass energy will be considered renewable and carbon­neutral only if the energy production does not cause the conversion of forests to non­forest uses.  We viewed this as an acceptable provision because of the very low risk that energy production from biomass will cause forest conversion.

So kind of them, to allow that proviso that protects forests! Unfortunately for forests and the climate, however, the provision does almost nothing to reduce carbon impacts of bioenergy. When you’re talking about liquidating a forest and turning it into biomass fuel, it takes so long to grow back, the net carbon impact is intense over several decades no matter what the fate of the land.

Washington Post photo of wood pellet harvesting site in North Carolina. The picture's original caption was, Washington Post photo of wood pellet harvesting site in North Carolina.  The picture’s original caption was,  “Little remains but stumps and puddles in what was once a bottomland hardwood forest.”  (Joby Warrick, Washington Post 6/2/2015. “How Europe’s climate policies led to more U.S. trees being cut down”)

Tenny wasn’t nearly done, however. In the eyes of a tree-burning industry lobbyist, the Energy Bill bioenergy amendment is  mostly just a way to get legislators used to the the idea of legislating outcomes for EPA and establishing the “carbon neutrality” of burning trees by diktat.  But what NAFO really wants is the whole enchilada, and they believe they have the “legislative strategy” to deliver it:

The Collins/King/Klobuchar amendment is a very positive step forward in our overall legislative strategy on carbon neutrality. Our next step is to use the momentum gained from this amendment to proceed with the placement of more detailed language (similar to last year’s provisions) in the House and Senate Interior Appropriations Bills.

Indeed, NAFO “proceeded with the placement” of an amendment placed in the House Interior Appropriations Bill dictating that EPA shall regulate “air emissions from forest biomass” “on the principle that forest biomass emissions do not increase overall carbon dioxide accumulations in the atmosphere” when forest inventory data collected by the Forest Service show that “forest carbon stocks in the U.S. are stable or increasing on a national scale.”

(i.e., the “ignore carbon pollution as long as trees are growing somewhere” strategy.)

A similar but somewhat modified amendment was placed in the Senate version of the Interior Appropriations Bill.

There might be a couple people out there who still object to industry lobbyists writing legislation to cut and burn America’s forests in the name of climate change – especially when that legislation strips EPA of its authority to do science and forces the agency to abide by a principle that is simply false.  The New York Times picked up quickly that legislating “science” on carbon neutrality was bad news, as did the Washington Post.

It’s like writing legislation telling EPA to regulate lead in drinking water “on the principle that drinking water lead concentrations don’t affect childrens’ health as long as blood lead concentrations aren’t increasing.”

If you have a problem with that, then you should have a problem with the biomass language, too.

Top photo from Dogwood Alliance: A hardwood forest clearcut to provide wood for wood pellet manufacturing at Enviva Biomass (and possibly other forest products). 



Beat Beat Back the Frack Attack!

Most of us already know about fracking for gas (oil too!) done by the fossil fuel corporados and the damage that drilling process does to the air and water. The film “Gasland” by Josh Fox a few years back helped to raise awareness of the issues. In the movie a resident of Pennsylvania, where a whole lot of fracking takes place, actually lights his tap water on fire. It seems some of the largely undisclosed list of chemicals used in the drilling process are flammable as well as toxic. Not surprisingly the public is not privy to information about those chemicals. As noted on the Gasland site: “In 2005, the Bush/ Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. It exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. Essentially, the provision took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job. It is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.”  As you may know, Dick Cheney and Halliburton are joined at the hip. Like so much of what goes on in Corporate America, industry and government have merged. However, on the state and local level daylight can still be found showing through here and there between those two entities. This means we, the people, still have a chance to protect our families and the environment from this particular assault.

Apparently, fracking has another drawback that fewer people know about. There have been reports over the past few years of Earth tremors associated with fracking. Recently a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) team presented a paper that made this astonishing claim about the Raton Basin of Southern Colorado/Northern New Mexico: “the majority, if not all of the earthquakes since August 2001 have been triggered by the deep injection of wastewater related to the production of natural gas from the coal-bed methane field here.”  Similar discoveries came from Ohio and Oklahoma as well as questions about large sinkholes opening up in populated areas.

Fracking is also a big issue in our neighboring state of New York where the Marcellus Shale deposit extends northward from PA.  All of this might lead you to believe that we here in Massachusetts will not have to endure this particular disaster-in-the-making. I wish that were true……..but it’s not. While fracking itself has yet to take place in the Commonwealth the results of fracking is very much at play. The corporados at Kinder Morgan (Son of Enron) were proposing to ram a new fracked gas pipeline through western Massachusetts, up into New Hampshire from Northfield, MA and back down into the Commonwealth to terminate in Dracut, MA. The proposed “Northeast Energy Direct” (NED) line would have, of course, carried a whole lot of gas with its attendant toxins and potential radon. The gas is largely methane, anywhere from 20 to 80 times worse for the atmosphere than CO2 and a good deal of that will get into the atmosphere through blowdowns at compressor stations and leaks elsewhere in the infrastructure. Massachusetts already is victim to massive methane leaks in its existing gas lines and, on a national level, such leaks are rampant. The proposed NED pipeline will only have made matters worse. The good news is folks in the Commonwealth brought massive resistance to this project and eventually prevailed, but another upgrade project, the Spectra pipeline in southeast MA on into the Boston metro area is still in the works.


Stay tuned to The Enviro Show for ongoing coverage of these struggles and updates on all the various aspects on Extreme Energy.


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