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Energy Sprawl

by GEORGE WUERTHNER

New legislation designated to encourage energy independence and less reliance on oil could backfire and indirectly create new pressures for massive forest destruction. Large scale commercial wood biomass energy poses a threat to our forest ecosystem, human health and will contribute to the production and release of even more global warming gases.

The long awaited Kerry-Lieberman energy bill known as The America Power Act has, among other goodies for industry, a clause that legally defines biomass incineration as “carbon-neutral” and “renewable.” Biomass includes field stubble, sewage, construction waste, municipal garage, and other sources, but the largest source for commercial biomass electrical generation plants is wood.

While I cannot comment on the merits of the bill overall, the provisions that would allow wood biomass energy to be labeled as renewable and carbon neutral poses a real threat to our forest ecosystem, human health, and global planetary climate. Already in Europe two thirds of the “renewable” energy portfolio comes from wood biomass—and increasingly that wood is being imported from even outside of Europe including the US and South America.

This legislation will only increase the demand for wood biomass consumption. Far more dangerous is the legislation helps to promote the widespread perception that burning woody biomass is somehow “green” energy. Since many government entities from local cities to states now require renewable energy as part of their energy portfolios, defining wood energy as a renewable energy creates a direct economic windfall profit for the timber industry.

Worse, the use of woody biomass burning to meet renewable portfolio “clean energy” mandates is a fraud perpetuated on unsuspecting consumers, many of whom believe when they are paying for “renewable” electricity they are supporting the development of clean and truly renewable sources like wind and solar energy. Instead, millions of taxpayers’ dollars are being poured into incinerators and subsidies for the cutting of forests to provide biomass energy that could be better spent on energy conservation.

Unfortunately like the ethanol debacle that has taxpayers subsidizing corn-based ethanol that uses more energy to produce than it creates when burned, many are jumping on the biomass energy bandwagon with a similar lack of critical review of the claims of “green” energy.

One of the prevailing myths about biomass is that it is “carbon neutral.” Biomass combustion power plants are treated under regulatory and subsidy programs as if they emit “zero” carbon dioxide. Because of its low energy content, burning wood releases 1.5 times smokestack CO2 than burning coal to produce the same amount of energy.

Plus recent research suggests that logging disturbance of forest soils can increase carbon losses as well. Then there is the carbon emitted by the logging equipment, trucks that carry the wood to the mill, and so forth. Finally, since most wood biomass burners are expensive to operate, they are often supplemented with natural gas, coal, or other fossil fuels, which also emit carbon.

All this carbon is immediately added to the excessive amount of human-caused carbon already spewing into the atmosphere. Most climate scientists believe we need to not only limit new carbon sources, but reduce the current carbon levels.

The time factor for resequentration of carbon is a critical issue in the global warming discussion that is conveniently ignored by biomass advocates. Timber companies and wood biomass advocates argue that since trees regrow they will in effect re-sequester carbon released by burning biomass, so we can burn wood without serious consequences.

Unfortunately carbon sequestration takes decades to centuries to fully rebind the carbon released by burning. The peat industry and the governments of Finland and Sweden even want peat to be regarded as renewable biomass even though it takes thousands of years to renew a peat bog.

According to the Energy Information Administration projections, a 20% renewable standard in the US as called for in the Kerry-Liebermann energy legislation would result in the emission of 700 million tons of CO2 from biomass burning. This amount of C02 would represent about 10% of total US emissions in 2020. Yet these emissions would be unaccounted under current “carbon neutral” renewable energy legislation.

Worse, biomass energy emits a large amount of fine particulate matter. And many new plants are sized to have a generating capacity under 40 megawatts which avoids the requirements of the Clean Air Act for Best Available Control Technology and the application of PSD standards.

Even with pollution control devises biomass energy is dirty. For instance, the McNeil Biomass Energy Plant outside of Burlington Vermont sports the latest pollution control devises yet is the largest single source of air pollution in the state.

The American Lung Association’s national office issued a statement calling the America Power Act an “outrageous proposal [that] creates an open door through which millions of tons of life-threatening pollution could be allowed to flow. We oppose these provisions. The American Lung Association cannot support legislation that includes changes to the Clean Air Act that undermine the protection of public health.”

Perhaps overcoming these air pollution problems is the reason Senators Max Baucus and John Tester, along with Mike Crapo of Idaho introduced legislation to amend the Clean Air Act definition of “renewable” energy in hopes that this would increase the use of woody biomass for fuel.

Ironically Senator Baucus in his speech introducing the legislation notes that warmer winters have allowed pine beetles to flourish in Montana contributing to a large number of dead trees. Normally cold winters kill the beetles, keeping their numbers in check. Yet Baucus, along with Tester and Capro favor burning these trees for biomass energy without apparently considering that the resulting emissions would be adding to the global C02 levels, which in turn will create even warmer temperatures facilitating even greater beetle spread. I don’t expect Baucus or other Senators to be experts on energy and its consequences, but if I were them, I would be suspicious of my legislation if it is endorsed by the timber industry.

If you want to understand why Baucus, Capro and Tester are supporting this legislation, one needs to follow the money. In this case look no further than noting that Plum Creek Timber Company, the Darth Vader of the Northwest, has endorsed this proposal. According to news reports “Plum Creek applauds Senators Baucus, Tester and Crapo for their leadership. This bill will ensure wood is on an even playing field with other renewable energy materials … It will clarify much of the confusion in the marketplace, and will provide a strong incentive for the use of wood in producing green energy.”

Using the red herring that dead trees will increase fire severity and spread (another disputed assertion), most western wood biomass advocates suggest that logging the forests will reduce wildfires—an unproven assertion. Yet there is a growing body of research that suggests that thinning and removal of trees can sometimes increase wildfire intensity and spread. Furthermore dead trees are less likely to burn than drought stressed live green trees due to their flammable resins. But beyond those problems, even wildfires do not release nearly as much carbon as commercial biomass energy facilities. Most of the carbon in a forest remains on site either as charcoal in the soil and/or as snags that take decades to decompose.

Beyond these questionable assumptions about carbon neutral status, the assertion that using biomass is “renewable” is also unproven. Biomass energy requires huge amounts of wood. The repeated removal of large quantities of biomass from forests will impoverish forest soils. Burning all this material for biomass energy will threaten the long term sustainability of our forests.

Another long term problem posed by the Repower America Act is the incentive it provides to create wood biomass plantations. Already much of the Southeast United States has been turned into sterile monocultures of pine for pulp and paper operations. If wood biomass becomes the fuel of choice to meet “renewable” energy standards as it is poised to do, we can expect even more of our natural forests to be converted into biomass monoculture tree plantations to the detriment of native species and native forests. Recently the USDA approved planting of a genetically modified tree designed to grow faster to fill the demand created by biomass energy.

Already, 50% the “renewable” energy in the U.S. comes from biomass incinerators. For instance, 82% of Pennsylvania “clean energy” comes from burning something. In Massachusetts, 49% of its renewable energy comes from biomass burning. In Massachusetts, five new wood burning electrical plants are proposed that would consume at least 2.4 million ton of wood per year. If the wood for these operations were limited to just the state of Massachusetts, collectively the five plants would vacuum all of the public and private forests in the state of its wood in just six years.

If biomass energy production were fully implemented, it would become the single largest human impact to land in the country, requiring the near full utilization of all the U.S. forests and much of its agricultural lands for fuel production, contributing to what one TNC scientist has termed “energy sprawl.”

Beyond the threat posed by large scale commercial biomass energy production to the forests, human health, and the land in general, subsidizing biomass reduces the funding available for other energy production including energy conservation that would have far more beneficial and longer lasting value to society than pillaging our forests.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is editor of Wildfire: a Century of Failed Forest Policy.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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