One of These Things Is Not Like The Other

Bill McKibben has written a post for Grist, the activist group he helps lead, comparing biomass to other alternatives to traditional fossil fuels. He writes, in part:

Turning corn into ethanol[…] sounded smart, until it became clear that it took almost as much energy to grow the corn as you got from the biofuel you produced. […]

Or substituting natural gas for coal — which seemed to make sense, because when you burn gas in a power plant, it gives off half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Even big environmental groups worked hand in hand with frackers at first. But scientists quickly figured out that the fracking boom was spewing methane into the atmosphere, and since it trapped heat faster than CO2, there was no real advantage […]

The latest of these sad sagas involves burning trees for electricity. Sometime before the end of the year, the U.S. Senate may vote to force the EPA to count industrial biomass operations as, by definition, carbon-neutral: that is, the government would be forced to conclude that an industrial-sized wood-fired power plant is just like a solar panel or a wind turbine, a way to generate electricity without contributing to climate change.

Of course, we’ve dealt with the fallacies in the last paragraph at great length. Most recently we’ve addressed the perplexing and misleading idea that government—and EPA in particular—is going to be “forced” to “conclude” anything. The reality is that the only thing Congress is considering “forcing” EPA to do is science.

But the McKibben post makes an argument we don’t see much: that biomass somehow has the same drawbacks as ethanol or natural gas.

It most definitely does not. As McKibben himself points out, unlike ethanol, biomass doesn’t have to go through an energy-intensive refining process to be used as energy. The tree thinnings, scraps, and manufacturing residuals that provide about two-thirds of the forest products industry’s energy are ready to go as-is.

And unlike natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, biomass is 100 percent renewable. Better yet, the process of growing biomass—otherwise known as “planting trees”—taps into the natural carbon cycle, which means it sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. As much carbon as biomass energy emits, if it’s done right. The language Congress is considering is all about making sure it’s done right.

We understand the instinct of activists to lump all fuel sources together—it makes reflexive opposition easier to sell to their donors. But it’d be nice to see groups like McKibben’s take biomass’s unique attributes seriously for once.