Eduardo Porter and the New York Times Get It Wrong, Again

A recent article (“Climate Change Calls for Science, Not Hope”, 06/23/15) contains significant omissions, imbalances in sourcing, and factual misunderstandings from author Eduardo Porter, who has gotten it wrong on biomass more than once.

For instance, there are several major errors in this paragraph:

It turns out that burning biomass — wood, mainly — for power produces 50 percent more CO2 than burning coal. And even if new forest growth were to eventually suck all of it out of the atmosphere, it would take decades — perhaps more than a century — to make up the difference and break even with coal.

Combined with responsible forestry, the greenhouse-gas-capturing power of the full, natural carbon cycle—which Mother Nature oversees, whether or not we generate forest bioenergy—ensures that as much or more carbon is captured and stored by our growing forests than is released. Yet we see the claim repeated time and again that it takes decades, even “more than a century” to regrow the trees the forestry businesses harvests to make thousands of products you use every day.

But this betrays a lack of understanding of how sound forestry actually works. The fact is that our forests are growing, not shrinking, because we are constantly planting new trees. In fact, twice as much wood is being grown each year than is harvested. The idea that foresters simply harvest every tree at once and then wait a century for another go is not just economically infeasible, it’s detached from reality.

Porter’s piece is printed in the “Business Day” section, but reads more like a pure op-ed built on the questionable assumptions of a like-minded letter from activist groups. In fact, by our count, Porter relies on seven separate activist sources hostile to biomass—and precisely zero forest industry experts. 

There’s a similar problem when Porter laments the EPA’s current recognition that “forest biomass emissions do not increase CO2 accumulation as long as forest stocks are not decreasing.” Porter again cites an activist, openly hostile to biomass, comparing that recognition to “legislating that the sea level cannot rise more than eight inches.”

But this comparison is inapt. The carbon-neutrality of biomass, currently recognized in various forms by the EPA, European Union, and United Nations, and supported by a group of over 100 forest scientists in an open letter to the former, is premised on the power of the full carbon cycle and the continued growth of American forests. If American forests were growing fewer trees than we harvest, the carbon profile of bioenergy would be different. Fortunately for us all, that isn’t the case, thanks in large part to our businesses’ commitment to sustainable forestry. It’s as simple as that.

Lastly, Porter is mistaken when he writes that “investment in carbon capture and storage technologies is virtually nonexistent.” The $223 billion in products manufactured by the forest products industry inherently represents a massive investment in the greatest carbon capture technology ever-devised: trees.  Perhaps what Porter meant to say is that the forest products industry provides massive carbon benefits to society through sustainable forestry, the carbon captured in forest products, and the fossil-fuel displacing energy we provide.  According to the EPA, net annual growth in our forests alone displaces 15% of our nation's industrial emissions.

But for its flaws, Porter’s piece has one thing right: Too often, “the goal of bringing the world’s carbon emissions under control is put at the service of other agendas, ideological or economic, limiting the world’s options.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. That’s why it is so important that Times readers not be misled into believing that biomass is a part of our problem—when it is actually a key, sustainable energy solution.