Senator Repeats Industry Talking Points in Congressional Push to Mandate Biomass Energy as “Carbon Neutral”

Clear-cut forest.

The Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) released a video this week revealing the cozy relationship between the biomass industry and legislators like Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) who are pushing Congress to adopt laws that would classify biomass power plants as carbon neutral.

In the video, Sen. Collins can be heard repeating biomass industry talking points nearly word-for-word during a February 3 speech. In the video, she is defending an amendment that would force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to treat power plants that burn wood and other biomass for electricity as emitting no carbon pollution.

According to PFPI, this biomass loophole is part of the Senate energy bill sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on October 27. The group also says that the House and Senate appropriations bills contain similar language, and that the Senate is likely to consider one or both bills soon after the November 8 election.

“No one who cares about climate change should legislate science for EPA,” Mary Booth, director of PFPI, said in a statement. “The fact is that burning trees for electricity is extremely inefficient and emits more carbon pollution than coal. No amount of industry spin can change the basic physics of wood combustion.”

A group of 65 environmental scientists and practitioners agree with these assertions. Led by the climate think tank Woods Hole Research Center (not to be confused with the oceanographic institution), they sent a letter to the Senate on February 22 protesting the amendment that would consider biomass unilaterally a zero-emission energy source.

Among their reasons for coming out against this provision includes the unbalanced timescale between the quick release of heat-trapping carbon dioxide from burning biomass and the decades to century required for new trees to remove those emissions. The group also argues that:

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…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.”

Watch the PFPI video here:

The National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO), which represents the industry that stands to gain substantially if the biomass loophole becomes law, has bragged in the past that its lobbyists wrote the biomass provision for Sen. Collins.

Sen. Collins’ remarks on biomass language in the Senate energy bill can be viewed in full in this video:

At 3:14, Collins says, “The carbon neutrality of biomass harvested from sustainably managed forests has been recognized repeatedly by numerous studies, agencies, institutions, and rules around the world.”

Compare that to this sentence from a page on the American Forest & Paper Association website: “The carbon neutrality of biomass harvested from sustainably-managed forests has been recognized repeatedly by an abundance of studies, agencies, institutions, legislation and rules around the world…”

At 4:21, Collins says: “As forests grow, carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. This carbon dioxide is converted into organic carbon and stored in woody biomass. Trees release the stored carbon when they die, decay or are combusted. As the biomass releases carbon as carbon dioxide, the carbon cycle is completed.”

Which closely mirrors this line found on the same page of the American Forest & Paper Association website: “As forests grow, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. This CO2 is converted into organic carbon and stored in woody biomass. Trees release the stored carbon when they die, decay or are combusted. As the biomass releases carbon as CO2, the carbon cycle is completed.”

A spokesperson for Senator Collins responded to the PFPI video by saying that the amendment to the Senate energy bill containing the biomass loophole “was not introduced at the behest of AF&PA or any other organizations. Senator Collins has been a longtime advocate of the benefits of biomass energy, and has worked for many years to build a coalition of stakeholders.”

PFPI notes that Collins is wrong to state that there is some kind of international consensus or regulation that considers the burning of biomass for energy to be carbon neutral. In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has unequivocally stated that even sustainably produced biomass cannot automatically be considered carbon neutral. PFPI launched a new website called earlier this year specifically to debunk misleading biomass industry talking points such as these.

In 2015, two of Collins' colleagues, Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, called out the EPA for including a provision in the Clean Power Plan that would allow states to account for biomass as if it were carbon neutral when designing their plans to lower emissions.

The EPA ultimately settled on an accounting method that is more complicated in the final Clean Power Plan issued last summer, however: “EPA indicated in the final rule that they'd sign off on 'qualified' biomass, defining that as 'biomass that reduces CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere,' and leaving it at that,” PFPI's Booth told DeSmog. “It's not clear what they mean or even if it would be legal under the rule, since the rule regulates what's coming out of the smokestack, period.”

The Clean Power Plan's accounting method could be changed once again if the biomass loophole is ultimately approved by Congress, however. Thanks to the amendment proposed by Sen. Collins, the energy bill would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA to “ensure that Federal policy relating to forest bioenergy…reflect[s] the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize[s] biomass as a renewable energy source.”

“The biomass industry will stop at nothing to get legislators to increase logging forests for energy,” observed Booth. “The public deserves to know who is behind these efforts and what burning trees for fuel would mean for the future of forests and our climate.”

Image Credit: A forest once the biomass industry is done with it. Photo by Dogwood Alliance.

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