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With “Friends” Like These…

Posted by Stan Parton on September 12, 2014

When I read that the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) requested the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigate the biomass industry for its claims that biomass produces clean energy, I was befuddled and annoyed. I thought environmental groups existed to solve environmental problems like climate change, not to further problems by attacking viable solutions like bioenergy.  

Environmental groups consistently fail to acknowledge the benefits of above-ground carbon compared to below-ground carbon.  Simple chemistry proves fossil fuels are more energy dense than biomass, so yes, the claim that biomass emits more carbon dioxide per kilowatt of power generated is true.  However, the carbon footprint of wood biomass is one-fifth to one-tenth that of fossil-based fuels.

Furthermore, the carbon in the carbon dioxide emitted from wood biomass combustion is sourced above the ground. It is therefore impossible for it to add to the above-ground carbon inventory, since that is where it came from to begin with. The trees sequestered this carbon into the tree mass. 

The complete opposite can be said for fossil fuels. Sourced from below the ground, all of the carbon emitted from fossil fuel energy is added to the atmosphere. So-called “environmentalists” want to burn fossil fuels and rely on trees to soak it up. Trees do a wonderful job of capturing and storing carbon, so they are well-equipped for the task.

Yet, one CO2 control scheme under investigation - carbon capture and storage (CCS) - takes carbon dioxide from coal fired power plants and attempts to “stuff” it back under ground.  A better solution would be never to remove the below ground sequestered carbon (coal and natural gas) from beneath the ground to begin with.

Using fossil-based carbon is a one-way street. The carbon is released to the atmosphere and stays there until it is removed (trees, CCS systems, etc.).  Using wood biomass, on the other hand, creates a repeatable cycle. Trees serve as a vehicle to collect the sun’s energy which we can then turn into cost effective, baseload electric power.

The PFPI request to the FTC is yet another unfounded claim in a series of biased attacks on the biomass industry.  In its report, the PFPI cited a biomass plant at Madison Paper Industries that was never built.[1]  The claims environmental groups make about corporations “clear-cutting” or “razing” forests are put forth with the seemingly same lack of credible research.

They tell a compelling story. Evil corporations are cutting down all of our trees so Europeans can make electricity. Their story is more fiction than not.  

Anyone who has bothered to perform the most basic of research into the forest supply chain in the United States would know corporations are not cutting down trees. In the US South, most forests are owned by private individuals.[2] The majority of these private landowners fully intend to harvest and replant their forests at some point. 

Wood bioenergy companies are not buying forestlands and cutting down trees. Landowners are harvesting their trees and selling the biomass as a come-along product. Year-to-date, the weighted average price of pine sawtimber is $26.92 per ton, while the price paid for biomass is negligible. Landowners simply do not clear-cut their forests to sell biomass.

If environmental groups are as committed to the environment as they claim, it would serve them well to focus their efforts where it counts. They might start with a look at the detrimental impact mining coal has on the earth. They could work to prevent deforestation where it is actually happening (across Africa, Indonesia, and the Amazon rainforests). And if they want to address a threat to forests at home, then removing residual harvest biomass to reduce the fire threat fuel load would be a great place to start.

At the end of the day, carbon accounting is a complex issue that can be boiled down to a simple message: above ground biogenic carbon is less harmful than below ground fossil carbon. Hopefully, the EPA will issue a favorable ruling on the treatment of biogenic emissions, which will give the states a powerful tool to meet the requirements of its Clean Power Plan.  


[1] Ohm, Rachel. 2014, April 4. Study cites nonexistent biomass plant at Madison Paper. Morning Sentinel.

[2] Kinney, Suz-Anne. 2014, January 22. Who Owns the Forest in the US South. F2M Market Watch.

Topics: wood bioenergy