A new law called the Energy Policy Modernization Act is on the fast track to being sent to President Obama to sign into law. Inside this bill is a small provision that could have wide ranging impacts. An amendment introduced by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski would designate the burning of wood and wood products for energy as “carbon neutral”. The specific part of the amendment, No. 3140, involved is actually just one sentence: “To support the key role that forests in the United States can play in addressing the energy needs of the United States, the Secretary, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency shall, consistent with their missions, jointly … reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source, provided the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest use.”
While wood is certainly a renewable energy source, burning it is anything but “carbon neutral”.
Last February, 65 scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center all called BS on this idea. They sent a letter to the 10 U.S. senators who are working on the Energy Policy Modernization Act. Here is an excerpt of what they had to say (emphasis mine):
Dear Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Minority Leader Harry Reid, Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell:
We are 65 research scientists and practitioners who study energy, soils, forested and wetland ecosystems and climate change. We are writing in our individual capacities to express our concern over the implications of a “forest biomass carbon neutrality” Senate Amendment 3140 to the Energy Policy Modernization Act that was recently accepted by the US Senate.
This well-intentioned legislation, which claims to address climate change, would in fact promote deforestation in the U.S. and elsewhere and make climate change much worse.
The amendment would require all federal departments and agencies to promote consistent policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source.” Mandating that there are no carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood from forests to produce energy does not make it so in fact.
The consequence of the amendment is to encourage a shift to forest biofuels in the form of pellets and wood chips to replace coal in the generation of electricity. Wood burning power plants are becoming more numerous in the United States and in the European Union. The US Department of Commerce and the US Forest Service are promoting expanded export of American wood pellets for this purpose to Europe and to Asia. Burning any carbon containing substance whether biomass or fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning forest biomass to make electricity releases substantially more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than does coal. Removing the carbon dioxide released from burning wood through new tree growth requires many decades to a century, and not all trees reach maturity because of drought, fire, insects or land use conversion. All the while the added carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere trapping heat. Right now, large areas of American forests including old growth trees are being cleared for pellets that are shipped to Europe and burned to produce electricity that is counted there as zero carbon. There is no requirement in the amendment that trees used for bioenergy be replaced. International obligations require the United States to account for bioenergy emissions from either the energy sector or as land-use change.
While forest biomass energy may be renewable over the long-term, it is not a low-carbon source of energy like solar panels. Using the same amount of land area, solar panels produce up to 80-times as much electricity as wood burning with no emissions at all. Yet with this amendment, both might receive the same subsidy under the Act. Furthermore, fossil fuel emissions associated with producing bioenergy (harvesting, chipping, drying, pelletizing and transporting) are equivalent to 20-25% of direct emissions, and under this legislation these emissions are unaccounted for.
Forest bioenergy as currently produced also competes with land for other forest products including timber, paper and agriculture. Promoting forest biomass therefore encourages additional deforestation.
It’s a pretty astonishing move but it could rev up the forest products and wood pellet industry in Sen. Murkowski’s state by making it less expensive to operate wood-burning power plants which is clearly her intent with this amendment.
Operating under the “carbon neutral” concept of wood fired power generation, the U.K. and Germany have converted coal fired boilers to wood pellets. German firms have built massive pellet plants for export in the South and East U.S.
State governments in forest regions of the U.S. are also eyeing wood pellet production as a job creation tool. A report for Midwestern states calculated 153 jobs arise for every 100,000 tons of wood pellets produced.
Different forms of the legislation have been passed by the U.S. House and Senate and it’s now in conference committee to iron out the details. They are in a hot rush to get it passed before the November general election. Environmentalist groups are already on the record for not supporting it for a variety of reasons. After the House bill passed, the White House indicated it would veto the bill if major changes were not made.
Here’s hoping this particularly outrageous part of the bill is stripped out before the conference committee finishes its work.