Hey, Biomass Monitor: Accuracy and Context Matter

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.