Want Good Biomass Policy? Start with the Science

“Desmog” describes itself as a group concerned with accuracy in reporting on environmental topics. When it comes to biomass issues, that’s a mission we heartily support.

A recent blog post on the Desmog web site (“Biomass Industry Intensifies Fight for Carbon-Neutral Status As Obama Admin Carbon Rules Draw Near”, by Mike Gaworecki, July 19, 2015) caught our attention. It is largely about energy policy, but of course you can’t make good policy without sound science and common sense, and unfortunately, Garowecki’s post opens with failures on both fronts, leading him to faulty conclusions.

Here’s how he begins:

The science is fairly convoluted but also entirely clear: Bioenergy — burning wood and other forest biomass as a fuel source — produces more carbon emissions than coal.

Even if all the forests we fed into power plants were to one day regrow, in theory sucking all that carbon back out of the Earth’s atmosphere, it would be far too late to be any kind of solution to the global climate crisis.

This is misinformed and therefore misleading, but it also presents a teachable moment.

Let’s start with the confused assumption behind the myth that biomass “produces” carbon emissions that otherwise wouldn’t occur. The paper, packaging, and wood products industries in most cases use bioenergy produced from the “leftovers” of the manufacture of forest products like printing paper, cardboard, and lumber—which taps into the natural carbon cycle. Carbon flows into and out of forests in a continuous sequence, and that would happen whether humans intervened or not. If biomass weren’t used to create energy, it would biodegrade in a landfill somewhere, or perhaps combust in a wildfire. In either case, it would emit as much carbon as it does when used to produce renewable carbon energy. In fact, if left to decay on its own, it will actually produce other, far more dangerous greenhouse gases like methane, which has a warming effect 25 times greater than carbon.

And not only does forest bioenergy harnesses energy value that would otherwise be lost to the atmosphere, it provides about two-thirds of the power to America’s paper, packaging, and wood products manufacturers, dramatically lessening the industry’s reliance on fossil fuels. So far from being a contributor to what the author refers to as “the global climate crisis,” biomass is actually a key part of a sustainable energy future.

Garowecki makes another fundamental mistake when he writes about the carbon-capturing power of America’s forestlands as if it were merely hypothetical. “If” forests were regrowing, they would “in theory” capture the carbon released by biomass, he writes.

But of course, we know that forests are growing—because we’re the folks helping to grow them. In fact, we’re growing twice as much wood each year as we are harvesting, and the total volume of trees in U.S. forests has increased 50 percent in the last 60 years.

Moreover, the carbon-offsetting power of this growth is not a “theory.” It’s a reality recognized by authorities such as the EPA, USDA, European Union, and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not to mention the 100 scientists and forestry experts who have publicly supported the science behind carbon-neutral biomass.  Indeed, the proposed legislation, which Garowecki himself quotes, considers biomass carbon neutral only if U.S. Forestry data shows, empirically, that forest carbon stocks are “stable or increasing on a national scale.” There’s nothing hypothetical about that.

Garowecki and his colleagues are of course free to support any policy they like. But first, they should be armed with the facts.