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, "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.”
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).