Enough Is Enough: Correcting Inaccurate Reporting on Forest Bioenergy

Enough Is Enough: Correcting Inaccurate Reporting on Forest Bioenergy

Forestry science and policy are complex topics, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be explained effectively and accurately to the public. Yet in recent months, as carbon neutral bioenergy has become a political issue, we’ve noticed a number of major publications get the science wrong. Journalists have a duty to present the facts in a balanced and accurate way, and when they don’t, we will step in to make sure readers have all the information.

Take this editorial by The Washington Post, “The EPA’s not-so-green emissions plan,” which contains several distortions and omissions, the most significant of which is a full and scientifically accurate account of the carbon cycle. Only by looking at the big picture—the natural and manmade processes by which carbon flows into and out of U.S. forests in a continuing cycle of carbon sequestration and release—will readers understand the long-term carbon benefits of bioenergy. 

Don’t just take our word on this. An open letter to the EPA from a group of 100-plus forest scientists representing 80 universities makes these basic facts clear.

As the activist group cited by the Post readily admits, the reality is that U.S. forests continue to grow thanks in large part to the forest products industry. In fact, twice as much wood is grown than harvested in the United States, and forest volume has increased 50 percent in the past 60 years. So it’s baseless to suggest that continuing to recognize biomass as a renewable would be “counterproductive.” Carbon storage in U.S. forests continues to increase, offsetting about 15 percent of total CO2 emissions annually. Biomass and sustainable forests go hand-in-hand.

Had the Post contacted forestry experts or any of the thousands of businesses whose success depends on being good forest stewards, their readers might know that many of those advocating for a change in the way EPA accounts for biomass narrowly focus on small samples of forest and use assumption-filled guesswork projections to measure carbon effects. In reality, the only accurate way to capture the health of our nation’s forests is to look at the big picture, using historical and current data to calculate the actual net transfer of carbon to the atmosphere from biomass use. Using complex statistical models preferred by those who want to see biomass disappear—models loaded with questionable assumptions and imperfect projections—results in, at best, an educated guess and often produces bad policy.

Another prime example of inaccurate reporting comes from The New York Times, in an article titled “A Biofuel Debate: Will Cutting Trees Cut Carbon.”

Most critically, the Times assumes that burning biomass magically creates carbon that didn’t already exist, a fallacy that we see come up time and again. But the truth is that carbon flows in and out of forests naturally. It is absorbed by and stored in plant material (and forestry products) and then released through natural biodegrading, wild fires, energy production, and the like, in a continuous cycle.

The writer, Eduardo Porter, leaves readers with the impression that there is doubt or controversy over the central question of whether forest bioenergy that taps into this cycle is carbon neutral. But in fact the carbon benefits of biomass are well established and accepted in science. Indeed, the carbon benefits of biomass are recognized by the EPA, USDA, the European Union, and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

It’s conspicuous that Porter relies almost exclusively on sources who warn of purely hypothetical harms from future use of biomass but fails to cite any of the countless experts who affirm the USDA, EPA, EU and UN consensus that biomass is a critical part of a sustainable, clean energy future. It’s also odd that an article that purports to describe a “debate” about biofuel fails to solicit any viewpoint from the many thousands of companies that actually take part in the business of caring for forests.

Like the Post editorial board, Porter seems to have spoken only to critics who favor convoluted models to “project” bioenergy carbon emissions, models loaded with questionable assumptions and impractical projections that results in, at best, an educated guess. Had he spoken to any of our forestry scientists, they would have explained that the only truly accurate way to measure the carbon neutrality of biomass is to look at real, historical data—actual measurements and not models—over a broad landscape.

These are just two high-profile examples of inaccurate reporting on bioenergy we’ve seen in recent months, but sadly there are many more. That’s why we’ve created Biomass101—to make sure readers have the facts, and to help the future reporting of such publications as The New York Times or The Washington Post to get the facts right.