Bill McKibben has written a post for Grist, the activist group he helps lead, comparing biomass to other alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. He writes, in part:
Turning corn into ethanol[…] sounded smart, until it became clear that it took almost as much energy to grow the corn as you got from the biofuel you produced. […]
Or substituting natural gas for coal — which seemed to make sense, because when you burn gas in a power plant, it gives off half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Even big environmental groups worked hand in hand with frackers at first. But scientists quickly figured out that the fracking boom was spewing methane into the atmosphere, and since it trapped heat faster than CO2, there was no real advantage […]
The latest of these sad sagas involves burning trees for electricity. Sometime before the end of the year, the U.S. Senate may vote to force the EPA to count industrial biomass operations as, by definition, carbon-neutral: that is, the government would be forced to conclude that an industrial-sized wood-fired power plant is just like a solar panel or a wind turbine, a way to generate electricity without contributing to climate change.
Of course, we’ve dealt with the fallacies in the last paragraph at great length. Most recently we’ve addressed the perplexing and misleading idea that government—and EPA in particular—is going to be “forced” to “conclude” anything. The reality is that the only thing Congress is considering “forcing” EPA to do is science.
But the McKibben post makes an argument we don’t see much: that biomass somehow has the same drawbacks as ethanol or natural gas.
It most definitely does not. As McKibben himself points out, unlike ethanol, biomass doesn’t have to go through an energy-intensive refining process to be used as energy. The tree thinnings, scraps, and manufacturing residuals that provide about two-thirds of the forest products industry’s energy are ready to go as-is.
And unlike natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, biomass is 100 percent renewable. Better yet, the process of growing biomass—otherwise known as “planting trees”—taps into the natural carbon cycle, which means it sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. As much carbon as biomass energy emits, if it’s done right. The language Congress is considering is all about making sure it’s done right.
We understand the instinct of activists to lump all fuel sources together—it makes reflexive opposition easier to sell to their donors. But it’d be nice to see groups like McKibben’s take biomass’s unique attributes seriously for once.
NPR just ran a radio spot and accompanying story provocatively headlined
Is Burning Trees Still Green? Some Experts Now Question Biomass
Elaborating on that premise, the piece notes that some scientists and environmentalists are challenging the "renewability" of biomass.”
“Experts”, “scientists”, and “environmentalists.” Sounds pretty serious right?
Spoiler alert: the only forest scientist quoted in the story offers a favorable take on the renewability of biomass.
Stranger still, the piece references a letter signed by 65 biomass opponents—a mix of forest and non-forest scientists, along with economists, policy scholars, and activists. But it completely ignores the work of NAUFRP, 100+ forest scientists from top universities who just this year reaffirmed to the EPA that responsibly produced biomass has clear carbon reduction benefits.
It’s bizarre that, even with this obvious sourcing omission, the only scientific “expert” on biomass NPR consulted spoke favorably about it, and yet we end up with a headline like “Is Burning Trees Still Green? Some Experts Now Question Biomass.”
NPR owes its readers and listeners better than this. That’s especially true given the most prominent anti-biomass source in the piece, John Coequyt, has a known history of colluding in less-than-reputable ways to grow the influence of his activist group.
It’s also a potential conflict of interest that NPR and Coequyt’s group are both recipients of millions of dollars in donations from the MacArthur Foundation. Given that NPR is currently facing serious controversy over whether its reporting was directly influenced by donors—and that the station’s own ombudsman called NPR’s disclosure practices “minimal to the point of being unhelpful”—the author and editors of this piece perhaps should have given this piece a more thorough scrub for balance and proper sourcing.
The dire headline and suggestion of some surging anti-biomass scientific consensus are simply not borne out by the story itself—even after some questionable sourcing decisions. NPR’s audience deserves better.
The Washington Post, which has consistently disserved its readers on biomass issues, is out with another piece today that repeats many of the same errors and distortions we’ve called out in previous coverage. So this time we thought we’d take a slightly different approach, and consider the piece from the standpoint of journalism ethics. The author, Chelsea Harvey, is a recent graduate of NYU journalism school, so let’s consider what went wrong here from the perspectives of both the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics, and the NYU Journalism Handbook for Students, both of which Ms. Harvey will no doubt have read.
Josh Schlossberg of the “Biomass Monitor” blog has posted a flawed story that is emblematic of why Biomass101 is necessary.
Schlossberg reached out to our coalition asking for a quick-turnaround comment on a new biomass report that we hadn’t had adequate time to review. Nevertheless we provided the following statement. (We’ll get to the highlighted parts in a minute.)
STATEMENT TO BIOMASS MONITOR FROM BIOMASS101
"The coalition can’t speak to the specifics of the report, as we have not had adequate time to review it, but we can say this: Biomass energy production doesn’t happen in a vacuum, either literally or figuratively. It happens as part of a complex process of carbon capture, storage, and emission that carries on much the same whether trees become forest bioenergy, or are lost to insects, disease, storm damage, wildfires and the like.
"We have found that most “reports” from opponents of forest bioenergy give an incomplete picture of this carbon cycle. Many analyses are therefore skewed, willfully or otherwise, because they fail to account for carbon stored by forest regrowth, use scientifically inappropriate timescales to measure relative carbon impacts, ignore how markets for biomass create demand for healthy forests, and so on.
"Biomass is carbon neutral where American forests are capturing as much or more carbon as energy production is emitting, and where sustainable forest management is reinforcing that dynamic. What makes biomass inherently renewable is that this is happening. Forest planting and re-growth has resulted in net increases in forest carbon stocks over the last 50 years, a period of increasing population and forest resource use. And the forest products industry is growing twice the volume of wood as we harvest each year."
In our response email, sent on May 6 at 5:55PM, we included this modest ask:
“One request is that you let us know ahead of publication whether you're going to use the statement, and which parts. If you don't run the full statement [we] just want to make sure your excerpt doesn't change the context.”
Schlossberg denied this request, responding with this at 8:48PM:
“I’ll add your quotes in this weekend and I’m well versed enough on the topic not to use anything out of context.” (emphasis added).
So what did Schlossberg actually use in the story? Only the bolded sections above.
And did he quote us in the same context in which the statement was written? You be the judge:
The idea of separately accounting for the carbon emissions of fossil fuels and bioenergy—biogenic carbon—is “ambiguous,” according to the report, which references the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing “uncertainty” on the topic.
While wood gradually emits carbon dioxide as it decomposes in the forest, Ahlers points out that wood burned in a biomass facility releases the CO2 in one immediate pulse. Still, he notes the issue involves a “complex factual question” that climate scientists have “wrestled with.”
Biomass101, a coalition of organizations representing the forest products industry, agrees that accounting for bioenergy carbon emissions is complicated. In an email to The Biomass Monitor, a representative writes that biomass energy is “part of a complex process of carbon capture, storage and emission that carries on much the same whether trees become forest bioenergy or are lost to insects, disease, storm damage, wildfires and the like.”
The organization contends that “biomass is carbon neutral where American forests are capturing as much or more carbon as energy production is emitting and where sustainable forest management is reinforcing that dynamic.
Schlossberg, who assured us he was “well versed” in the issues, has us agreeing with the assertions in the previous paragraphs—that biomass carbon accounting is “ambiguous”, a question marked by “uncertainty” that science is still “wrestl[ing] with.”
But in fact, the quote he uses doesn’t refer to carbon accounting at all, it refers to biomass energy production. And later in the statement—in a paragraph Schlossberg omitted in its entirety—we referenced some of the flawed scientific assumptions behind biomass opposition. Specifically, we warned against the “use [of] scientifically inappropriate timescales to measure relative carbon impacts.” Yet that’s exactly the faulty thinking that Schlossberg implies we agree with.
It doesn’t get much more out of context than that.
Schlossberg is a regular reader of Biomass101, so he knows that we don’t believe the science is “ambiguous.” He knows that 100+ forest scientists from 80+ top research universities have already “wrestled with” the “complex factual question” of biomass’s carbon profile, and have delivered their expert opinion on biomass’s benefits to the EPA. And he knows that we have detailed repeatedly how flawed coverage ignores this reality and gets the science wrong. Yet sadly, his piece includes many of the very errors we warned about.
We take words and context seriously because we take facts and science seriously. We know that even seemingly minor differences in characterization, or seemingly innocent omissions, can make a big difference in the public’s understanding of the issues.
In fact, we take words so seriously that when Schlossberg emailed us back on April 23rd suggesting that we “might want to rethink” how we used the term “anti-biomass activists”—because there are activists and activist groups that only oppose some forms of forest biomass—we listened. A founding principle of Biomass101 is that balance, objectivity, and accuracy matter. So we discussed the objection as a coalition and made adjustments to the way we write about the issue as a result.
We hope Schlossberg will return the courtesy.
TO: Washington Post Editorial Board
ATTENTION: Stephen Stromberg
FROM: Robert Glowinski; Donna Harman; Deb Hawkinson; David Tenny
It has come to our attention that you plan to write on the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016—passed by the Senate April 20—and that you may focus, in part, on a provision in the bill relating to forest bioenergy (biomass).
Our coalition, Biomass101, represents the leading trade associations at every link of the forest products value chain. Our mission is to foster fair, objective, balanced and scientifically grounded press coverage of biomass issues. Since we have identified inaccuracies in previous Washington Post reporting on the subject, and since the editorial board has not at this time reached out to any of our member organizations for discussion of the scientific and policy issues in play, we are taking this opportunity both to present you with our views and to point you to expert sources who can ensure you get a balanced view of the science.
The Senate amendment—authored by Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and supported by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—recognizes the carbon benefits of renewable biomass and its role in America’s renewable energy future. It was advanced earlier this year from the Committee of Energy and Natural Resources by unanimous voice vote, and then included in the Senate-passed Energy Bill. It directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Energy (DOE) to jointly establish a unified federal policy on forest biomass energy. The amendment broadly conforms to a number of core principles to which we are committed:
-The carbon benefits of biomass are well established and widely accepted in the peer-reviewed science.
-Biomass energy is rightfully considered carbon neutral as long as forest carbon stocks are stable or rising (as they currently are in the U.S.)
-The benefits are best understood by looking at the full carbon cycle of release and sequestration, not just at emissions at the moment of combustion.
-Forest carbon stocks should be measured on a broad geographic scale using a historical baseline over an appropriate period of time. The scientific consensus recommends a baseline of 100 years for measuring the effects of biomass–the same timeframe that is applied to other energy sources.
-Markets for biomass and other forest products stimulate forestland ownership, enabling landowners to maintain healthy forests that capture carbon.
These core principles are in line with a large and growing body of scientific research, and align closely to the fundamentals presented in an open letter to the EPA by the National Association of University Forest Resources Programs (NAUFRP), a group of 100+ forest scientists representing 80 top research universities. The NAUFRP consensus should rightfully be a part in this scientific debate, and we strongly recommend that your board familiarize itself with the group’s scientific fundamentals before writing on the subject.
An abundance of agencies, institutions, legislation, and rules around the world—including guidance from the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the reporting protocols of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—have recognized the benefits of energy from biomass. And here’s what our own government reports:
-The EPA, in its Clean Power Plan recognized biomass energy as a fossil fuel alternative that “can play a role in controlling increases of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.”
-The U.S. Department of State reports, based on EPA USDA analysis, that strong demand for forest products other than timber will increase forest carbon stocks through ongoing landowner investment.
-Regularly collected USDA data show that U.S. timberlands are growing at more than twice the rate of harvests. The total volume of trees in U.S. forests has increased 50 percent in the past 60 years.
-Biomass markets, like other forest products markets, enable private forests to afford forest management that sustains carbon benefits over the long term. EPA data show that carbon storage in U.S. forests offsets 13 percent of total U.S. CO2 emissions annually.
Unfortunately, when the New York Times editorialized recently on biomass, it omitted the science and U.S. government’s own data, quoting only anti-biomass activist talking points that don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny. (See our open letter in response to the editorial, which counters in detail a number of these talking points).
We welcome dialogue with you to help ensure you deliver to your readers a fair, balanced and scientifically grounded take on biomass and its place in the broader energy bill.
President and CEO, American Wood Council
President and CEO, American Forest & Paper Association
President, Forest Resources Association
David P. Tenny
President and CEO, National Alliance of Forest Owners.
TO: Andrew Rosenthal, Editorial Page Editor
FROM: Robert Glowinski; Donna Harman; Deb Hawkinson; David Tenny
CC: James Bennet
Dear Mr. Rosenthal:
While it is certainly the prerogative of The New York Times editorial board to editorialize for or against any piece of legislation it wishes, you also owe a duty to your readers to present the issues soberly, with due respect for basic journalistic standards of accuracy, objectivity, and balance.
Your recent editorial against aspects of the energy bill (“An Energy Bill in Need of Fixes” April 20, 2016), particularly the provision that recognizes the carbon benefits of forest bioenergy or biomass, fails that duty in a number of respects.
You describe the provision in question—crafted under the leadership of Sens. Susan Collins (R., Maine) and Amy Klobuchar (D., Minnesota), and enjoying the support of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents in the Senate—as the bill’s “most problematic.”
The editorial goes on:
“The underlying assumption is that the carbon emissions caused by power plants that burn wood are canceled out by the carbon absorbed by new and growing trees. But this is a dangerous misconception. Burning wood releases carbon almost instantly, whereas it will take years, if not decades, for new trees to absorb an equivalent amount of carbon, as 65 scientists and environmentalists pointed out in a letter to senators in February.”
This may be the view of the signatories of the letter—a group that, as you note, includes scientists (only some of them forest experts) as well as political activists—but it does not reflect the state of the scientific debate.
When these activists talk about the science on carbon neutrality and biomass, they inevitably quote themselves—a small handful of studies commissioned, designed, authored, funded, and pitched to editorial boards by the same few groups with the same political agendas and the same predetermined views. But when you look at the peer-reviewed literature in leading publications in the field like The Journal of Forestry, and independent experts like the 100+ top university scientists at the National Association of University Forest Resource Programs (NAUFRP), you get a much different story.
Like the activists you cite, your editorial implies that biomass is worse than fossil fuels at the moment of combustion. But had you consulted NAUFRP’s own analysis, signed by scholars from 80+ top research universities, you might have learned that focus is misplaced: “Forest biomass energy yields significant net decreases in overall carbon accumulation in the atmosphere over time compared to fossil fuels,” NAUFRP scientists conclude. “Comparisons between forest biomass emissions and fossil fuel emissions at the time of combustions and for short periods thereafter do not account for long-term carbon accumulation in the atmosphere and can significantly distort or ignore comparative carbon impacts over time.”
Or had you sought out the wide-ranging review of the state of the field in the Journal of Forestry, you would have read that “in the case of forest-derived fuels, as long as wood-producing land remains in forest, this short-term increase in emissions is reversed in essentially all cases, and in the long-term, the use of forest-based systems provides lower cumulative CO2 emissions than fossil fuel-based alternatives.” (Miner et. al, 2009)
You similarly repeat the activist talking point that it takes “years” or even “decades” for biomass to reach carbon balance. But this ignores the scientific consensus on the appropriate timescales for measurement of the climate impacts of various fuel sources. NAUFRP scholars argue a 100-year measurement timeframe is necessary because it “provides a more accurate accounting … [and] more appropriately demonstrates the cumulative carbon benefits of biomass energy compared to fossil fuels.” The literature review in the Journal of Forestry puts it even more starkly: “Using a time horizon of less than 100 years to judge the significance of emissions of biogenic CO2 implies that wood energy emissions are more damaging than fossil fuel-derived CO2 and other GHGs, which has no scientific basis.” (Emphasis added.)
The “decades” fallacy also runs counter to standard forestry practice, not to mention common sense, in that it implies the production of biomass energy involves massive “clear-cutting” followed by decades of waiting around. The U.S. forestland base does not wait around. Not only are harvested trees replanted—at an approximate two-to-one ratio—but those trees that are not harvested, or do not die from old age, disease, fire, or catastrophic windstorms are constantly growing and adding to the standing forest biomass volume. There is no need to wait decades to bank that regrowth.
The Times editorial board could have learned all of this by reaching out to any of our four member organizations, which are respectively the leading associations at every level of the forest value chain. Or you could have reached out to the independent experts themselves, instead of limiting your consultation to activist groups. Indeed, NAUFRP sent its own letters—with 100+ signatories, all of them forest scientists—to the Science Advisory Board of the EPA making just these points.
We don’t expect the Times board, or any member of the press, to take our “side” on the issues, but we do expect them to present all the relevant facts to their readers, without bias or omission. We trust informed readers to make the right call for themselves. But that process can’t work if you’re placing a thumb on the scale, either willfully or through lack of diligence.
We look forward to hearing how you intend to remedy these flaws.
President and CEO, American Wood Council
President and CEO, American Forest & Paper Association
President, Forest Resources Association
David P. Tenny
President and CEO, National Alliance of Forest Owners.
In recent days, two coalitions of eco-activist groups have sent open letters to members of Congress expressing objections to the Energy Policy and Modernization Act (S. 2012) due to its treatment of biomass energy. The letters have some differences in verbiage and scope, but the signatories are all too familiar, and the scientific distortions are getting pretty old.
Readers who encounter the letters are left to wonder whether they should trust the claims made about biomass—and understandably so. One of the letters sources its “scientific” claims almost entirely to studies authored by one of its own activist signatories. The other letter offers no outside sources of reference at all.
So we thought it would be helpful for readers see the activist claims alongside work from real scientists and forestry experts, to show how much daylight there really is between the spin and the facts on these key energy policy questions.
The EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board just voted to further delay affirming the scientific consensus on the carbon benefits biomass, a move that could have major consequences for the climate, and for America’s energy future.
As part of the process leading up to the vote, the board received input and comments from experts and other stakeholders. But none so clearly expressed the undeniable scientific consensus on biomass than the March 21 letter from National Association of University Forest Resources Programs (NAUFRP), an association of scientists and educators from 80 of the nation’s top universities that seeks to advance the sustainability and productivity of American forestry.
The NAUFRP letter, posted to the SAB’s website and copied below, points back to the “Science Fundamentals of Forest Biomass Accounting,” which is still the best single document out there summarizing the scientific consensus on the carbon benefits of forest bioenergy. Signed by 100-plus top forestry scientists and experts, these are the bedrock, empirical facts that guide us at Biomass101.
You should read the whole thing, but the March 21 letter does a great job distilling an ocean of data and peer-reviewed literature into four basic, bedrock conclusions:
- The carbon benefits of sustainable forest biomass energy are well established.
- Measuring the carbon benefits of forest biomass energy must consider cumulative carbon emissions over the long term.
- An accurate comparison of forest biomass energy carbon impacts with thoe of other energy sources requires the use of consistent timeframes in the comparison.
- Economic factors influence the carbon impacts of forest bioenergy.
As we have catalogued at length on this site, whenever skeptics or agenda-driven activists argue against biomass they ignore the evidence behind one or more of these principles. That’s why it’s so critical that policymakers listen to scientists, not ideologues.
Chris Mooney of the Washington Post is out with an article on the activist letter we recently critiqued here. Mooney deserves credit for including a balanced perspective on the science underlying the carbon benefits of biomass and the language of the congressional amendment that reflects those benefits.
But the article might still leave readers believing one of the core myths of anti-biomass dogma—that trees take “a century” to grow back after harvesting.
This is wrong coming and going. Not only is it false that it takes a century to regrow trees after harvest—responsible forestry doesn’t work that way, for reasons we outlined here—but 100 years is precisely the timeframe that most climate experts recommend for a robust assessments of carbon trends in the atmosphere. Indeed, it’s the same timeframe that climate scientists themselves use to measure the impact of fossil-fuel derived greenhouse gases. So why does a group that includes several climate scientists get away with a double standard when it comes to biomass—which, unlike fossil fuels, is a fully-renewable resource and an ingenious carbon capture technology in its own right?
As researchers in the peer-reviewed, scientific Journal of Forestry put it:
“[I]t is long-term cumulative CO2 emissions that are correlated with projected peak global temperature, and these cumulative emissions are reduced by substituting forest bioenergy for fossil fuels. Considering forest growth, investment responses, and the radiative forcing of biogenic CO2 over a 100-year time horizon (as used for other greenhouse gases), the increased use of forest-derived materials most likely to be used for bioenergy in the United States results in low net greenhouse gas emissions, especially compared with those for fossil fuels.”
That’s in line with the thinking of the UN IPCC, and the 100+ forestry scientists that Mooney himself cites in the piece. So it does readers a disservice to give credence to alarmist spin that isn’t supported by sound science.
There’s also another irony at work. Just hours before Mooney reported on the activist letter, he put out a long, thoughtful piece on researchers looking for viable means to pull carbon out of the air. What is perhaps the number one challenges to these efforts, according to Mooney? Economic viability. Mooney reported that one such project to pull carbon out of the atmosphere could cost between $60 and $600 trillion—yes trillion. And yet if you were to imagine a substance that taps into the natural carbon cycle, pulls CO2 from the atmosphere naturally and efficiently, and taps into a viable, renewable energy source that is a viable replacement for fossil fuels in many contexts—you’d be imagining forest biomass.
As we wrote in response to the misguided activist letter, healthy biomass markets mean healthy forests. Even as we speak, the laws of supply and demand, combined with smart, responsible forestry, are working to help solve our energy problems and our climate challenges. Anti-biomass would better serve their donors, and the planet, by pausing to reflect on their misguided opposition.
A group of scientists—many with connections to activist groups and most lacking direct expertise in forestry management practices—has issued a letter to policymakers challenging the carbon benefits of forest bioenergy.
Their case relies on a faulty understanding of the economic and scientific principles at play, and sadly is in many ways indistinguishable from the agenda-driven talking points of the most zealous activists using anti-biomass rhetoric.
Here are just some of the things the letter gets wrong: