The Wrong Way to Look at Biomass

A recent article on biomass from Alastair Bland of Comstock’s (“Burn Notice,” 07/23/15) leaves out relevant facts and perpetuates a number of misapprehensions about biomass.

Bland correctly points out several advantages of biomass over other energy sources, and is right to note that tapping into “waste wood” harnesses the energy potential of material that would otherwise decompose landfills, wild fires, and the like. Readers should also know that forest bioenergy prevents the release of methane––which has a 25 times greater warming effect than carbon dioxide––that would result from wood debris being landfilled or otherwise decomposing.

But from here, Bland veers into factual misunderstandings and omissions. He writes, “the industry is embroiled in controversy” and “there seems to be no straight story on biomass.” But in fact, the science on the carbon neutrality of biomass is clear, as is detailed in a letter from 100 forest scientists and other experts with the National Association of University Forest Resource Programs, and affirmed by U.S and international government agencies.

Bland also gives space to the activist fallacy that it takes decades for biomass to achieve carbon neutrality. But this complaint assumes foresters harvest every tree at once and have to wait decades before the next cut. Thankfully American foresters are smarter than that, and are constantly planting trees: growing twice as much wood each year as they harvest. That’s why the total volume of trees in US forests has actually increased by 50% in the last 60 years.

If Bland wants to present readers with a full and fair discussion of the importance of time scale in understanding the environmental impact of biomass, he should note that scientists recommend a one-hundred-year timeframe––the same span used for evaluating the impact of coal and other energy sources. Holding biomass to a different standard than other energy tips the scales and distorts the science.           

Finally, Bland cites activists worried about the future of American forests. But readers deserve to know that far from endangering forests, demand for forest products like biomass helps them thrive.  A healthy biomass industry incentivizes responsible forestry, which in turn helps combat carbon emissions. Carbon storage in US forests is currently offsetting about 15% of total US carbon dioxide emissions annually, and that number is expected to grow as forest volume increases.

Readers could hardly be blamed for coming away from Bland’s piece thinking that biomass is the enemy of clean energy and healthy forests. Clear away the distortions and omissions, and it becomes clear that the opposite is true.