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The Biomass Monitor

The Biomass Monitor monthly newsletter is the nation's leading publication tracking the health and environmental impacts of biomass energy.

Latest Issue: Biomass Energy: Another Kind of Climate Denial [October 2014]

 

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Our monthly newsletter tracking the health and environmental impacts of biomass incineration.

 

A publication of Energy Justice Network, Florida Environmental Justice Network, and Florida League of Conservation Voters

Editors: Josh Schlossberg, Mike Ewall, and Samantha Chirillo

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Biomass Monitor Blog

Are Carbon Taxes Another False Solution?

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

Carbon taxes are emerging as a major top-down climate solution enviros would like to see come out of Congress.  Plenty of “tax carbon” signs were present in the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March in New York City last month.  Even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is urging nations to adopt either a carbon tax, or the (failed and problematic) “cap-and-trade” model.  Cap-and-trade approaches enrich Wall Street speculators, can concentrate pollution in vulnerable communities that lack political clout, and fail to truly reduce carbon emissions, yet elevate lots of sketchy and climate-damaging false solutions from burning toxic landfill gases to running Indigenous people off of their forested lands.

Sadly, carbon tax proposals are riddled with problems as well, making it a “solution” we can’t support.  Real solutions would end corporate agriculture and dirty energy subsidies (including massive spending on imperial military adventures) and spell out policies that regulate and mandate what is actually needed to transform the agriculture, energy, materials/waste, and transportation sectors into sustainable climate solutions.  Instead, carbon taxes focus on one sector (energy) and hope that the market will choose the right solutions in the right time frame for all sectors.  It’s just as likely to elevate false solutions like nuclear power, biofuels, biomass and waste incineration.  Some proposals explicitly promote some of these false solutions.  If not structured properly, a carbon tax can also be regressive (harming the poor more).

In June 2013, we put together an Open Letter to Citizens Climate Lobby, signed by 86 organizations in 29 states and 11 countries, calling out the problems with the carbon tax legislation they’ve been pushing, which highlighted the following five points:

  • 1)    A carbon tax will be insufficient to move the market in a relevant time frame. 

Climate change is a genuine planetary emergency.  It’s already too late to prevent it, and the best we can do is minimize and brace for its impacts.  Any strategy to reduce greenhouse gas pollution needs to do so rapidly and decisively within a mandated timeframe.

The market does not know best.  A carbon tax relies on a market price to be enough to do the job in time, even though it would cover just part of the problem, and would surely set the price to low.  Setting a price on carbon does not guarantee that changes will be made in a meaningful time frame or that the changes will lead us toward clean solutions.

In 2012, Yvo de Boer, the former chair of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, stated that we need a minimum carbon tax of 150 Euros per tonne (about $212/ton) to drive the price signals we really need.  Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) – the main advocates for a carbon tax in the U.S. – supports a $15/ton tax that increases $10/year, taking 20 years to hit the minimum level needed to drive change.  The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 that CCL has been supporting, starts at $20/year and rises gradually to $34.49/year after 12 years and stays there, at a level six times lower than would be effective.

This is enough for politicians, Exxon and enviros to claim they’ve done something, but woefully inadequate to actually blunt the impacts of climate change.

  • 2)    A carbon tax elevates false solutions

By only punishing fossil fuels, a carbon tax puts nuclear power, “biomass” and waste incineration, landfill gas burning, and crop- and waste-based liquid fuels at a competitive advantage.  It even helps push “clean coal” and puts natural gas ahead of coal, ignoring the methane impacts that make it worse than coal.  We cannot count on the market to pick the clean solutions (conservation, efficiency, wind, solar and energy storage) over cheap, polluting false solutions, most of which are worse than coal for global warming.

Nuclear power: Everyone from MIT to the Union of Concerned Scientists to industry consultants to the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency seems to understand that a moderate carbon tax would mean a nuclear industry windfall.  Sure, a lot of fossil fuels are used in the nuclear fuel chain, but a carbon tax doesn't fully make up for the windfall nuclear power will get as it's put at a competitive advantage with fossil fuels, appearing cheaper than coal for the first time.  A carbon tax could include language to ban new nuclear reactors, phase out existing ones, or accomplish the same by repealing the Price-Anderson Act’s nuclear accident insurance liability caps.  It won’t, though, because carbon tax advocates won’t touch the issue.  Charles Komanoff of the Carbon Tax Center admits: “The fact that a carbon tax would create a price advantage for nuclear power is regrettable, but that’s the way it is.”  Citizen Climate Lobby has rabidly pro-nuclear NASA scientist James Hansen on their advisory board and allowed him to be a keynote at their 2013 annual conference, the same year when he’s pushing nuclear power in national media.

Nuclear power is the most expensive, subsidized and slow-to-build form of power and one of the most destructive and racist.  It is a false solution that releases radioactive air and water pollution and sucks up all of the economic resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels.  It chews up large amounts of land to bring uranium through four energy-intensive steps of processing before it can be used in a reactor.

Carbon tax advocates claim that we don’t need to worry about nuclear because it’s too expensive to go anywhere, and should be dealt with in separate policies (as if a separate effort to “fix it later” will have the support of the carbon-centric advocates).  The fact is that nuclear power is already the most heavily subsidized energy industry, enough that it’s already cost competitive with geothermal and off-shore wind.  Half of federal energy R&D went to nuclear power over the past 65 years.  The Obama administration is currently providing $8.3 billion in loan guarantees for two new reactors to be built in a black community in Georgia.  Nuclear power continues to struggle economically without big subsidies and is stagnant at the moment due to temporarily cheap gas prices, but carbon tax among the backdrop of other subsidies would put nuclear back in the front seat.

Trash incineration is 2.5 times as bad for the climate as coal, and is far worse by every other measure of pollutants as well.  New EPA loopholes, as well as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are poised to allow coal plants and thousands of other boilers to start burning trash without regulation or community notification.  Carbon taxes ignore incinerators, even though over half of the CO2 emissions from trash incineration are from the burning of plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived products.  The world’s largest waste corporation, Waste Management, is poised to exploit this loophole and move from landfilling waste to sky-filling it by marketing trash fuel pellets to every boiler they can.  A carbon tax (coupled with the Clean Power Plan and EPA’s waste deregulation) will drive this climate-killing mass switch from coal to trash burning.

Biomass incineration is 50% worse than coal for the climate, and claims of carbon neutrality have been repeatedly debunked.  “Save the climate, burn a tree” doesn’t make for a catchy cause, but forests in the U.S. are being logged for this “renewable” power, and are even being chipped and shipped (with fossil fuels) to Europe to be burned in converted giant coal plants.  Ignoring “biogenic” CO2 emissions is just another form a climate denial.

That denial is strong in carbon tax bills.

The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 outright makes grants available to biomass and biofuels that are “not sourced from food crops” (which would include burning or liquefying trees, grasses, wood waste, animal waste, trash, sewage sludge and other wastes).  Taxing fossil fuels and putting the money into energy sources worse for the climate is as misguided as it gets.

Congressman Waxman’s draft bill also has clear support for biomass.  Section 9(5) will probably subsidize biomass just as Section 201 of Boxer-Sanders does.  Section 11(b)(5) of the Waxman draft specifically exempts biomass.  Section 3 defines “covered entities” with references to 40 CFR 98, which specifically instructs to “exclude carbon dioxide emissions from the combustion of biomass” when GHGs from biomass are calculated.  This flies in the face of science.

Recent science tells us that these “biogenic” sources are not carbon neutral in any meaningful time-frame – that it takes several decades for wood burning to become just as bad as coal if trees are grown and left alone to compensate for the extra CO2 released, and centuries to approach carbon neutrality.  A 2009 study published in Science reported that measures such as a carbon tax applied to fossil but not to biogenic emissions, would result in conversion of virtually all remaining natural forests, grasslands and other ecosystems to energy crop monocultures by 2065.

Landfill gas burning for energy is even worse than trash incineration, as organic wastes are continually fed to landfills to become CO2 and methane.  CFCs and related intensely-potent global warming gases are also released by landfills.  Burning the gas for energy, ironically, causes more gas to escape the already pitiful gas capture systems, making it worse to use for energy than to just waste and flare the gas (even if coal were displaced by the small amount of power generated).  True zero waste solutions are needed, including keeping organics out of landfills, to tackle this major methane source.  Landfills are completely ignored by carbon tax proposals, except where they may be subsidized as clean alternatives, as renewable energy policies already do.

Biofuels are worse than petroleum for the climate, necessitating that we stop trying to grow fuels (using natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers and other fossil inputs), and move away from burnable fuels altogether.

A growing literature demonstrated that biofuels are very inefficient to produce and when full lifecycle assessments are completed, many have a carbon footprint comparable to, or worse than fossil fuels.  Because of the very large land area, soil, water and fertilizer requirements to grow crops and trees for bioenergy, most biofuels result in vast, largely unacknowledged carbon and nitrous oxide emissions, depletion of soils and water resources, biodiversity losses as well as conflicts and human rights abuses, including escalating hunger due to food price increases.  Like biomass and landfill gas, a carbon tax both implicitly and explicitly promotes these false solutions.

It’s not easy to close these “biogenic carbon” loopholes.  Carbon taxes focus on the extraction phase (coal mines, oil refineries and gas wells or distribution hubs), so that they don't have to try to measure every smokestack and tailpipe.  This isn’t so easily done with biomass and waste-based climate pollution.  Will these be treated differently so that smokestack pollution is measured?  Will trees cut be counted only when going to markets that would burn them?  What about demolition waste and other “biomass” harvested for burning?  How would a carbon tax measure the “biogenic” and fossil portions of trash incineration?  How would landfills be accounted for so that all gas (collected or leaked) is counted, without encouraging landfill gas burning for energy (which causes more gas leakage)?  How would a carbon tax ensure that organics are composted and kept out of landfills in the first place?  How to account for biofuels?  It gets impossibly complicated, even without getting into the debate over how much to subtract out “biogenic” carbon that is sucked back up in the future as if anyone can guarantee that those trees won't be chopped back down for later burning or use.

Ignoring these emissions is not acceptable.  Making these dirty energy climate impacts invisible feeds the perception that these energy sources are valid alternatives to fossil fuels, and fails to educate carbon tax advocates and the politicians they speak to.  Nuclear power and incineration disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color.  Keeping their struggles invisible perpetuates the injustices.

Even Coal and Gas Supported? 

So-called “clean coal” could be supported as some bills exempt carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) schemes that attempt to store CO2 underground infinitely.  Congressman Waxman’s draft carbon tax, as well as Congressman Van Hollen’s carbon “cap-and-trade with dividend and auctions” bill both exempt CCS.  CCS is usually coupled with enhanced oil recovery (EOR) schemes that use the CO2 to get more oil out of oil fields – oil that releases CO2 when burned.  The CO2 used to extract the oil also comes back up with the produced oil.  Some CCS sites have already shown signs of the CO2 leaking out.  CCS loopholes that enable continued coal burning (or oil extraction) have no place in a climate bill.

Even natural gas may benefit from a carbon tax, relative to coal and oil, as the carbon content is lower.  However, this doesn’t account for the methane, which is 86 to 105 times as bad as CO2 for the climate over a 20-year time frame.  Gas leaks from well to end use are extensive and cause gas to always be worse for the climate than coal.  Citizens Climate Lobby’s 2014 policy proposal recognizes this and aims to account for it, but this foresight is unlikely to make it into any bill with a  change of passage, as the gas industry is the government’s darling.

  • 3)    A carbon tax could be regressive

A straight carbon tax would be regressive, impacting lower-income households harder than higher-income ones, as Food and Water Watch recently argued, citing a Congressional Budget Office report.  However, this flips around if the tax is returned to households in a monthly or quarterly dividend check.  Dividend checks are part of most carbon tax plans.  This would be a progressive wealth-redistributing policy that puts equal-sized checks in the hands of most U.S. residents.

One of the glaring errors in these policies is that the dividend checks would not go to all.  Millions of the most poor and vulnerable among us would be left out.  The Boxer-Sanders Climate Protection Act of 2013 would – after raising the costs of energy and goods on everyone – provide monthly rebate checks only to “legal residents of the United States.”  This would cause a disproportionate hardship on the nearly 12 million undocumented United States residents whose work is fundamental to our economy in important ways, from providing the food on our tables to caring for our children and elders.  Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill does the same and seems to exclude even more people (those lawfully here on temporary work visas, including many agricultural workers).

Environmental Justice demands that any approach to curbing emissions does not shift economic and environmental burdens onto vulnerable communities.  To their credit, Citizens Climate Lobby supports dividend checks going to all households.  How to fix this, and who will speak up about it is another question entirely.  Perhaps CCL needs to make it a talking point in their lobby days.

  • 4)    A carbon tax fails to adequately cover all relevant sectors

A carbon tax fails to cover all critical economic sectors that are part of the problem and should be part of the solution.  Energy is a major climate culprit, but the agriculture and waste sectors need to be a major part of a climate policy solution as well.  It’s inadequate to expect that the indirect impacts on these other sectors will be enough to move them, and to do so in the proper direction.  Same goes for transportation, which is an energy sector, but also one that requires specific redirection of policy that a blunt tool like a carbon tax cannot provide.

The transportation bill annually pumps hundreds of billions of dollars into highways.  Known as the “highway bill,” it allocates 80% of funding for highways and auto-centered infrastructure, and 20% for transit.  Without reversing this annual allocation, how can a carbon tax truly transform our car- and truck-centric transportation system into one centered around bike-able and walkable communities and fare-free mass transit?

Same goes for the waste and materials economy.  Solutions are far too nuanced to expect a carbon tax to properly lead us to a zero waste paradigm.  In 2006, EPA estimated that provision of goods accounts for 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and that provision of food accounts for another 13%, totaling 42% of emissions attributable to materials management.  Considering how EPA ignores biogenic emissions from waste incineration, underestimates GHG emissions from landfills, and didn’t have the latest science on methane, this is surely an underestimate.  Minimizing waste can reduce at least 37% of U.S. GHG emissions.  Since a carbon tax doesn’t address methane, CO2, or CFC emissions from landfills, or even the CO2 emissions from trash incinerators, municipal officials may react to a carbon tax by cutting truck trips, dropping separate recycling or composting collection to save fuel and let the waste be buried (or burned, then buried), rather than see the larger picture.

Agriculture has the most promise to transform from being the largest climate problem to the largest climate solution.  As the recent Cowspiracy documentary shows, animal agriculture (to feed meat and dairy consumption) is the leading cause of global warming, rainforest destruction, land use, water use, water pollution, and species extinction, while contributing to world hunger and numerous health problems.  The film draws attention to 2006 research by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization showing that the world’s livestock contribute more to global warming (18%) than the world’s entire transportation sector (13%).  It then introduces 2009 research by analysts at the World Bank Group showing that animal agriculture, viewed more holistically, is actually responsible for at least 51% of global warming!

While this 51% figure has been debated back and forth, it seems more credible than the lower figures, as it accounts for various oversights and also looks at methane’s impacts over a more relevant 20-year time horizon, rather than the 100-year figure.  At the time of the study, methane was understood to be 20-some times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 72 times over 20 years.  We now know, from more recent research, that methane is 35 times as potent as CO2 over 100 years and 86 to 105 times over 20 years.  Even if the 51% figure (which the researchers say is conservative) is a bit inflated, it’s also still underestimating the true impacts of methane.

No matter how you cut it, animal agriculture is the largest contributor to global warming.  Because much of the impact is from methane, reducing meat and dairy consumption can have the most rapid effect on the climate.  After all, methane has a 7-8 year half-life and persists in the atmosphere for a short enough time to make a quick impact.  CO2, on the other hand, persists for over 100 years, so reductions in methane are far more important to avoid short-term global warming tipping points.

One U.N. agency, using the lower GHG estimate for animal agriculture’s impacts, stated in 2010 that: “A substantial reduction of impacts would only be possible with a substantial worldwide diet change, away from animal products.”

Carbon tax policies, even if intended to cover methane, are likely to ignore agriculture as a sector, focusing primarily on CO2 from fossil fuel sources.  Congressman Van Hollen’s “cap and dividend” bill specifically exempts animal agriculture.  A carbon tax would drive up the costs of food – most especially meat and dairy – due to higher costs of oil and of nitrogen fertilizer (which is produced with huge amounts of natural gas).  However, the true global warming impacts of agriculture will be drastically downplayed.

Just as the transportation bill puts mega-subsidies into highways each year, the farm bill does the same for corporate agribusiness.  A carbon tax that only partially impacts this sector won’t be enough to shift to the solutions we need.

Can regenerative organic farming reverse climate change?

2014 Rodale Institute research shows that we can reverse climate change with decentralized, local, no-till, organic farming using compost, cover crops and enhancing crop rotations.  These practices, known as regenerative organic farming, can sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions using widely available and inexpensive organic management practices.

Citing 75 studies from peer-reviewed journals, including its own 33-year Farm Systems Trial, Rodale Institute concluded that if all cropland were converted to the regenerative model it would sequester 40% of annual CO2 emissions; changing global pastures to that model would add another 71%, effectively overcompensating for the world’s yearly carbon dioxide emissions.

Even if modest assumptions about soil’s carbon sequestration potential are made, regenerative agriculture can easily keep annual emissions to within the desirable range necessary if we are to have a good chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2020.

For more info on this topic, see websites on “carbon farming” here, here and here.

We must replace animal and industrial agriculture with farming practices like permaculture, biointensive, and regenerative organic farming.  It must be decentralized, with community gardens, farmer’s markets, and community supported agriculture becoming wide-spread.  It won’t be enough to focus on individual change (but you should still click the previous link and find a CSA near you!).  We need institutional changes to encourage all of these practices and to replace the farm bills’ big ag policies with these green solutions.  A carbon tax will help a bit, but to truly make this shift, we need to transform agriculture policies and subsidies, focusing in on the details of how to do it right.  As the Rodale report explains, it takes all of the pieces, not just some, for soils to become the carbon sinks we need them to be.

Say what we want!

Blunt economic instruments won’t get us where we need to go.  We need to be blunt about what we want, and not expect “invisible hands” of the marketplace to move us to wind and solar rather than nuclear and incinerators, for example.  A real climate policy would mandate drastic (at least 75%) reductions in demand through energy conservation and efficiency throughout the economy, including a reversal in transportation priorities.  It would mandate that the rest of our energy needs be met by solar, wind and energy storage.  It would set a national zero waste policy.  The Farm Bill would become an engine for a climate-friendly regenerative organic agriculture system.  It would shift the $74 billion in annual dirty energy subsidies, and most of the gigantic military budget into making these solutions possible.  Finally, it would radically change our foreign policy from an imperial war-based conquest for our “economic interests” into one of reparations and support for other countries to follow this path to clean solutions.  …and then I woke up:

  • 5)    Better solutions are more politically realistic

“Political realism” is not usually part of my vocabulary.  It’s the term usually used by mainstream environmental groups to justify why they’re supporting rather compromised legislation – because, after all, the corporate controlled state or national legislators simply aren’t ready to pass something good, so we have to start with something not-so-good because it’s the best we can get.  The prominent environmental leader, David Brower, responded to this best:

“Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders.  Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies, and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause.  If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way.  We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function.” – David Brower

We must recognize that a carbon tax is a non-starter, politically – though this can eventually change and is slowly shifting.  Near-term, however, we’re not talking about something that can pass Congress.  Even a filthy cap-and-trade bill that we, Greenpeace, Dr. James Hanson and others called “more harm than good,” couldn’t pass in 2009 when foundations poured about $1 Billion into big enviro groups to push it.  …and that was before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the Tea Party takeover of Congress and other legal decisions that cemented corporate control over the federal government.

So, the choice is between one politically unrealistic solution and the others that we propose, which wouldn’t carry the several problems that a carbon tax would.  In 2009, a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) law almost passed Congress, and similar laws have been passed in over 30 states.  That is far more politically viable than any tax marketed as a “fee” – especially where any progressive dividend would sadly be red-baited for its wealth redistributing aspects.

RPS policies are mandates for utilities to phase in a certain percentage of “renewable” energy in their mix.  While these aren’t defined cleanly like they should be, they still mandate a shift to a new electricity mix with specified technologies in a clear time frame.  The legislative structure and political momentum is there.  The main problem is ensuring that the concept of “renewable” is defined cleanly, being limited to non-burn technologies, prioritizing conservation, efficiency, solar, wind and energy storage.  Most state RPS laws (and federal bills) consider burning trash, biomass and landfill gas to be renewable.  Some get worse, counting “advanced” nuclear power, or the burning of coal (in gasification plants), waste coal, coal mine methane or tires.  These bad precedents in state laws have been pushed into federal bills and are likely to be redefined as “Clean Energy” Portfolio Standards so that nuclear power and coal mine methane is included.

…Which brings us to the problem with doing anything at the federal level.  Corporations control our government.  They do this at all levels, but getting meaningful policy passed without major compromises is only possible at the local level – and sometimes at state levels, but they’re pretty corporate controlled, too.  It’s critical to recognize that people power is strongest at the local level, and that social change comes from the bottom up.  That’s why we see success rates in our grassroots base ranging from 60 to 99%, depending on which industry is being fought, whether it be coal or gas-fired power plants, nuclear reactors, landfills or incinerators.

It’s unreasonable to expect top-down major national legislation that isn’t so horribly compromised that it begs the question of whether it’ll make any difference or do more harm than good.  That’s why we need to be pushing for clean election reforms at all levels of government.  It’s also why the movement and its funders need to be putting more energy into the grassroots, where we’re decimating entire industry sectors one community at a time, rather than into top-down strategies that expect major changes out of a corporate-puppet Congress.

As our open letter to CCL stated last year: “We must unshackle our democracy from corporate control and political bribery before we can achieve success.  Meanwhile, we must continue to build our power and advance the policies and projects from the community, municipal, state and regional levels, which is what grassroots organizing has been doing for decades: shutting down and preventing polluting facilities from coming online at the source while creating vibrant real solutions right at the community level.”

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Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots activists fighting dirty energy and waste facilities. 

The Forest Service and Collaboratives Garden Our Forests

- by George Wuerthner, September, 25, 2014, The Wildlife News 

If the public really understood the illogic behind Forest Service management, including those endorsed by forest collaboratives, I am certain there would be more opposition to current Forest Service policies.

First, most FS timber sales lose money. They are a net loss to taxpayers. After the costs of road construction, sale layout and environmental analyses, wildlife surveys, (reforestration and other mitigation if required) is completed, most timber sales are unprofitable.

Indeed, the FS frequently uses a kind of accounting chicanery, often ignoring basic overhead costs like the money spent on trucks, gasoline, office space, and the personnel expenses of other experts like wildlife biologists, soil specialists and hydrologists that may review a timber sale during preparation that ought to be counted as a cost of any timber program.

The FS will assert that ultimately there are benefits like logging roads provide access for recreation or that thinning will reduce wildfire severity. However, as will be pointed out later, most of these claims are not really benefits. We have thousands of miles of roads already, and adding more does not create a benefit. Reducing wildfires–even if thinning did do this which is questionable–it can be argued that we should not be reducing wildfire severity.

Is Biomass All It's Cut Up to Be?

- by Howard Brown, October 17, 2014, Summit Daily
 
One possible reason for sticking to the ill-advised Ophir Mountain and other clear-cutting plans is that the clear-cut trees would go to the biomass power plant in Gypsum. Biomass power is renewable energy. It wouldn’t justify destroying Summit County’s wonderful forests and trails, but biomass is green energy right? Maybe not.
 
Is biomass power a good renewable energy source that we should promote here in Colorado? To answer this, we need to back up and look at where biomass energy comes from. As with most of our energy sources, it starts with energy from the sun. In photosynthesis, plants use solar energy to convert water and carbon dioxide to carbohydrates. Energy is stored in the carbon-hydrogen bonds. (Geologic pressure over time strips the oxygen from plant material to create hydrocarbon fossil fuels.) When animals metabolize carbohydrates, or when plant or fossil fuel material combusts (burns), that energy is released as oxygen combined with the material, returning to the lower-energy carbon-oxygen and hydrogen-oxygen bonds of carbon dioxide and water.
 
The problem with fuels such as coal and wood is that they are solids. The combustion process requires direct contact between oxygen molecules and molecules of the fuel. For gaseous fuels such as natural gas, that is very easy, individual oxygen molecules readily mix directly with individual methane molecules. For liquid fuels such as petroleum products, vegetable oil or ethanol, that mixing is more difficult and the resulting combustion less efficient. With solid fuels, however, it is exceedingly difficult for individual oxygen molecules to contact individual fuel molecules, so the combustion process is incomplete and far less efficient.
 
As a result, much less energy is produced per amount of fuel. This both generates more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases per amount of energy generated and makes the fuel far less valuable. With its low value as a fuel, biomass can only be an economic fuel if it is inexpensive and very close to the power plant. Indeed, nearly all [a significant and increasing percentage of biomass facilities transport wood from elsewhere. -Ed.] current commercial biomass power uses waste biomass sources burned right at the generation site (pulping liquid at paper mills, scrap at lumber mills and municipal solid waste at collection centers). Also, the incomplete combustion generates air emissions as well as ash.
 

Consequently, the future of biomass power lies with developing technologies to gasify or liquefy biomass, so that it can be burned more efficiently. This research closely parallels efforts to develop clean-coal technologies. Other biomass research focuses on developing fast-growing trees or grasses.

Gasification and liquefaction technologies are not here yet. You certainly don’t come to the mountains or the arid West for fast-growing trees. Cutting down natural forests and hauling the wood 60 miles hardly qualifies as using industrial waste materials at their source.

Colorado is blessed with great solar and wind resources. These are our best sources for renewable energy. Here and now, at the expense of losing Summit County’s beautiful forests and trails, is clearly not the place for biomass power.

Howard Brown lives near Silverthorne. While he has extensive environmental policy analysis experience at the federal, state and local levels, he attributes his expertise to observing and asking questions while enjoying Summit County’s beauty.

Will National Forests Be Sacrificed to the Biomass Industry?

- by Josh Schlossberg, October 15, 2014, Earth Island Journal

If we’re to believe the biomass energy industry, the US Forest Service, and a chorus of politicians from both sides of the aisle, we can solve the energy crisis, cure climate change, and eradicate wildfire by logging and chipping our national forests and burning them up in biomass power facilities.

The plotline of their story goes something like this: Years of taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression in federal forests (at the behest of the timber industry) has resulted in “overgrown” forests crawling with icky bugs, ticking time bombs ready to burst into flames. And the fix, it just so happens, involves even more taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression, with the trees forked over to the biomass industry to burn in their incinerators and then the “green” electricity sold to utilities and eventually the public — at a premium.  

This “burn the forest before it burns you” propaganda is most prevalent throughout the West, but it’s present anywhere there’s public land, with a total of 45.6 million acres across 94 national forests in 35 states qualifying as “Insect and Disease Area Designations” under the 2014 Farm Bill — money on the stump for the biomass industry.

Saving the Forest from Itself

The Forest Service’s logging-for-biomass agenda has “nothing to do with public welfare or the economy,” according to Carl Ross, executive director of Save America’s Forests, an organization that works to protect US forests. Instead, it is simply a way to justify the existence of an agency whose “multi-billion dollar budget is dependent on cutting trees.” With the lumber industry in contraction due to a dismal housing market and tanked economy, the Forest Service focuses on “sick” forests that can only be “cured” through chainsaw surgery to fuel biomass incinerators.

The concept of logging a forest to “save” it is nothing new. It dates back to President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act in 2003. However, a recent uptick in national forest logging has accompanied a rash of new biomass incinerator proposals, with politicians and even some environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, cheering the industry on.

Currently, the majority — though not all — of the trees fueling the hundreds of biomass power plants across the country come from private land. However, as you read this, Colorado’s White River National Forest is being clearcut to feed the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass incinerator in Gypsum and plans are being hatched to hand national forests over to the biomass industry in Washington, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Montana, Minnesota, and Virginia.

Fanning the Flames of Fire Hysteria

As any Madison Avenue advertiser knows, the best way to sell a product is to make people afraid not to buy it: If you don’t wear these sneakers you won’t make the team. If you don’t use this shampoo you’ll never get the girl. If your tax dollars don’t fund the logging of public forests, your house will burn down. Inflaming anxieties around wildfire is one of the preferred tools of biomass supporters.

What the industry leaves out, however, is that “fuels reduction” or “wildfire prevention” logging, like any form of logging, degrades forests by compacting soil with heavy equipment and miles upon miles of logging roads, silts watersheds with eroding soils, and kills fish and wildlife. Industry and agency claims that “fuels reduction” plays the same function as wildfire ignore fire’s ecological role of refreshing forest stands, creating wildlife habitat, and returning carbon and nutrients back into the soil. What’s more, logging for biomass can be even more intensive than logging for lumber since it typically removes the high nutrient tops and branches which would otherwise be left in the forest to slowly decompose.

Luckily, science is catching up to common sense by demonstrating that wildfires, including large, “catastrophic” ones, were historically quite common; that large fires are more a product of drought, high temperatures and winds than “fuel” levels; and that the “effectiveness” of logging for wildfire is “not supported by a significant consensus of scientific research,” with the practice unlikely to slow fires, but instead running the risk of spreading them quicker by drying the forest and opening it to wind.

Humoring industry for a moment, even if logging could stop large wildfires and it was desirable to do so, the chance that a particular logged acreage will experience fire in the coming decades is pretty improbable. Cutting a given stand in a national forest on the off-chance that it might burn is like cutting off your thumb so you don’t hit it with a hammer.

Beetlemania

Biomass supporters also claim that the mountain pine beetle increases the risk of wildfire, giving us yet another reason to log forests. It’s true that beetles might give some of us the willies, but insects have a crucial job in the forest, killing some trees to open up space for fresh growth. And while it’s true that two to three years after a visit from the mountain pine beetle a tree’s dying needles can make it more flammable, following that brief window, a tree is actually less apt to burn than when it was green and less prone to experience a crown fire.  

Naturally, this hasn’t stopped industry from advocating for unscientific “preventative” treatment that involves logging before the beetle even shows up, or afterwards if it does, despite the lack of proof that doing so accomplishes anything. “Most research indicates that there is little or no such relationship between beetle-caused tree mortality and subsequent fire occurrence and severity in lodgepole pine forests,” concludes professor Bill Romme, who teaches forest and fire ecology at Colorado State University, in an article written for NASA’s Earth Observatory. Instead, fire is “controlled primarily by weather conditions” and the amount of fuels, including from beetle kill, is only a “minor influence on fire behavior.”

More research, such as “Effects of Bark Beetle-Caused Tree Mortality on Wildfire,” a report out of Utah State University, demonstrates that “generalizations about the effects of beetle-caused tree mortality on fire characteristics are unwarranted,” while concerns about soil scorching — a favorite boogeyman of the Forest Service — are also overinflated.

Biomass Doesn’t Live Up to Hype

Despite being touted as a “green” energy source by some, biomass energy typically falls short of its many promises.

Enthusiasts argue that biomass provides a valuable, low-carbon source of renewable energy. Trees and food crops grow back, they say, providing a never-ending stockpile of biomass material. Biomass has gotten a lot of attention because it can usually be accessed whenever needed, a benefit not shared with weather-dependent resources like solar and wind. What is more, advocates claim whatever comes out of the smokestack is harmless.  

Unfortunately, particularly when it comes to using trees for fuel, most of these arguments just don’t pan out. Burning carbon-storing forests in an incinerator typically emits higher levels of climate-changing greenhouse gases per unit of energy than a dirty coal-fired plant. Not to mention that when you cut down a tree, you take away its future carbon storing potential. Biomass incinerators also produce harmful air pollution (including asthma-inducing particulate matter and carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds). And though biomass energy may be available around-the-clock, it simply isn’t a cost-effective source of energy — it is expensive to produce!

Carving Colorado

Those who want to see what “forest health treatments” feeding biomass incinerators actually look like need go no further than the Ophir Mountain Forest Health and Fuels Reduction Project in Colorado’s White River National Forest. There, 1,600 acres are being clear-cut just outside of Frisco in response to the local mountain pine beetle “epidemic,” which peaked between 2007 and 2009 and has since subsided. All of the trees are fueling the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass facility.

West Range Reclamation won a bid to pay $8.6 million to log the White River for 10 years, with much of the wood being sold to the Eagle Valley biomass incinerator. Eagle Valley itself has received $40 million in loan guarantees from the Rural Utilities Service, a portion of an annual $12.5 million matching payment for feedstock transportation from the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (part of the Farm Bill), and a $250,000 biomass utilization grant.

So where will Eagle Valley source its wood after the beetle-killed trees run out? Conveniently, the White River National Forest is proposing new “forest health” projects all the time, such as the recently announced Keystone Vegetation Management clearcutting project, with long-term plans to log 220,000 acres of the White River in total. And after those forests are gone, the Bioenergy Alliance Network of the Rockies wants to harness millions of more acres of national forests across all of Colorado and the rest of the Rocky Mountains.

Backcountry logging won’t get us anywhere. It doesn’t protect people from wildfires, though it does divert funding and attention from strategies that actually can, like making homes “firewise” (as demonstrated by the Forest Service’s own research), and it doesn’t provide a clean, economical, or sustainable source of energy. Ultimately, allowing the biomass industry to decimate our national forests just isn’t worth the impacts to clean water, fish and wildlife, flooding and erosion control, and recreation.

Man Killed in Accident at Drax Biomass Plant in Louisiana

- October 21, 2014, MyArkLaMiss.com

The worker who died after an accident at a Drax Biomass plant in Morehouse Parish has been identified as 32-year old Christopher Erving of West, Mississippi

Erving was a contracted employee of the Jacksonville, Florida based Haskell Corporation 

 

Drax Biomass has released a statement on the incident:

 

"It is with deep regret that we confirm the death of a contractor involved in an incident at the Morehouse Pellet Plant construction site near Bastrop Louisiana in the early evening of Tuesday, October 21st. Site emergency plans were enacted immediately and the injured person was air-lifted to hospital by the emergency services where he later died. The incident is now the subject of a full and thorough investigation by ourselves, the contractor's firm, and the authorities. We are unable to give any details of that investigation until it has been concluded. Our thoughts and sympathy are with his family”

New Contract to Accelerate Use of Biomass in China

- October 13, 2014, Bioenergy News

US-based renewable fuels producer BlueFire Renewables has finalised and signed a new master engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract for its cellulosic ethanol plant in Fulton, Mississippi.

The contract is with China International Water and Electric, a subsidiary of renewable energy company China Three Gorges (CTG).

'The master EPC structure will utilise a US-based EPC contractor to be the onsite engineering, procurement and construction team using local suppliers and craftsmen generating much needed local revenues for Itawamba County and the surrounding region,' states BlueFire CEO Arnold Klann.

The contract is to provide cost savings by leveraging CTG's relationships and experience to complete the Fulton project.

'Our support of this important commercial project is consistent with China's goals to advance the use of non-food biomass to produce renewable fuels, power and chemicals in cooperation with the US, all the while helping the environment,' says Lin Chuxue, executive VP of CTG. 'We see this relationship with BlueFire as an important step in bringing renewable cellulosic fuels and chemicals to China's burgeoning marketplace.'

34.5 Megawatt Biomass Project Planned for Japan

- September 16, 2014, New Generation Power

New Generation Power International, a leading global renewable energy company, will develop three 11.5 Megawatt (MW) wood biomass plants in Japan.

Together, Chicago-based New Generation Power International (NGPI) and Nippon Energy Solution, Inc. (NES) will launch a new wood-based biomass energy generation venture that will construct three separate facilities located in the Japanese regions of Miyazaki and Kagoshima.

Expected to break ground around April 2015, the project will be capable of generating 248 GWh of electricity annually, the equivalent of powering 44,000 households and cost an estimated $169.67 million USD.

With a strong presence throughout Japan and a robust relationship with the local economies of Miyazaki and Kagoshima, NES will be responsible for the project’s development, operation and fuel supply. Synergy Power Solutions and Artha Energy Resources will advise the transaction.

Valero’s Indiana Ethanol Plant Damaged After Morning Fire

- October 13, 2014, The Paper of Montgomery County

Crews were called to an early morning fire at the Valero ethanol plant in Montgomery County Monday.

After 1 a.m., a call came in about a fire at the Valero plant, just off of U.S. 231 near Linden. Firefighters from six departments responded to the plant just after 1:30 a.m.

Linden firefighters say the fire started in the dryer area which is on the west end of the facility.

Earl Heide from the Linden Fire Department said it took five hours to put out all of the hot spots. He said there is major damage to the west section of the plant.

Authorities said no one was injured in the incident.

State investigators are currently trying to determine the cause of the fire.

Three Injured in Canada Wood Pellet Plant Explosion

- October 14, 2014, Bioenergy Insight

An explosion at Pinnacle Renewable Energy's wood pellet plant in British Columbia injured three and resulted in around 30 employees being evacuated.

The incident happened on 9 October after a fire broke out inside equipment used to dry wood fibre. The plant's built-in suppression system had already extinguished the flames by the time fire fighters arrived.

The plant was last inspected on 17 June 2014, when no problems were found.

Fossil Fuel Divestment: How to Evolve the Campaign Beyond its Shortcomings

- by Mike Ewall, Energy Justice Network

Sometimes, environmental movement campaigns that become very popular aren’t the ones that are the most strategic. Trying to divert the fossil fuel divestment bandwagon to a better path hasn’t been easy (or well-received), but some critical examination is long overdue.

As activists like to point out, we don’t have much time to address climate change. We’re already past the point where we can “stop” it, and likely past the points where we can contain it to the two degree Celsius increase that supposedly averts catastrophic levels of climate disruption. Given this urgency, we cannot afford for so much time and energy to be spent on campaigns that aren’t fitted to the scale of the problem.  It’s like scaring people about how awful global warming is, then telling them that they just need to screw in a different light bulb and drive a Prius.

In short, the fossil fuel divestment campaign is symbolic and diverts attention from going after the largest and most critical sectors driving climate change, and from actually disconnecting institutions from reliance on fossil fuels. It implicitly greenwashes other dirty energy sources (some of which are worse than coal) by framing the problem as just about fossil fuels. It similarly ignores the largest cause of global warming: animal agriculture. Unlike the anti-Apartheid campaign, it fails to target corporations in a position to actually change their behavior. Finally, investments are likely to be shifted to smaller fossil fuel corporations, corporations that support the fossil fuel economy, or other damaging investments. Efforts to drive investments to truly clean alternatives will be hampered by economic contradictions, requiring a deeper economic analysis as the campaign evolves.

Divestment is a symbolic campaign, but not a strategic one

Some of the main national organizers of this campaign – even Bill McKibben, in private – have admitted that the campaign is symbolic. Jamie Henn, a spokesperson with 350.org, said divestment alone will not succeed in reversing climate change, stating: “We have no illusion that we can bankrupt a company like ExxonMobil through divestment, but we can vilify them to the point where they begin to lose their political influence.” While campaign supporters have been building arguments for how symbolic campaigns can have tangible results, the reality remains that it’s still a stretch, and that more direct campaigns to fight fossil fuels would do far more for the climate and the communities directly impacted by the industry.

Christian Parenti makes several good points in his late 2012 article in The Nation, titled "Problems With the Math: Is 350's Carbon Divestment Campaign Complete?" He points out that the most infamous climate deniers, Koch Industries, is privately held and is immune to divestment, as is 70% of world oil reserves (and even more of the ‘easy oil’) which are owned by national oil companies that are also heavily insulated from the tactic (though some are now partially traded). He points out that corporations don’t make money on investments (stock is mainly a way to get money out of these corporations), and that their bottom line isn’t impacted by investments, but by those consuming their products.

What Would be More Strategic?

The biggest contributor to climate change (as much as 51%) is animal agriculture. However, as the recent Cowspiracy documentary shows, big environmental groups are unwilling to talk about this and advice that people stop eating so much meat and dairy. The other elephant in the room is natural gas power plants. With methane being 86 to 105 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time-frame, and serious leakage of methane gas occurring throughout the natural gas infrastructure (which cannot be brought to levels lower than coal’s impacts), the current push from coal to gas is suicidal for the climate. There is a surge of about 300 gas-fired power plant proposals in the U.S. right now, and the major environmental groups are doing an excellent job of ignoring them, if not still championing the switch from coal to gas. If the time and energy (and funding) put into divestment were put toward stopping gas-fired power plants while there’s still time to challenge most of them, it would be a dramatic and real win. Divestment campaigns and power plant battles both aren’t easy to win, but the track record of stopping power plants is arguably far better than divestment’s track record so far. About 60% of the gas-fired power plant proposals in the last wave of development (10-15 years ago) were stopped. 400 were built. Many more weren’t. Each power plant stopped does far more than all divestment campaigns can claim to – avoiding about 30 years of fracking over each power plant’s lifetime.

Divestment is a student-centered campaign. Even if we don’t leave campuses, there are several ways corporations are tied to universities, including purchasing and service contracts, research grants, recruiting, and ties to board members (often called trustees or regents).

A campus divestment campaign could just as easily include campaigns like the one run by the Ohio Student Environmental Coalition (which Energy Justice Network started in 2006 to fight proposed coal plants in Ohio) where Ohio State University students successfully pressured their campus president to step down from the board of Massey Energy, a major coal mining corporation. Could that also be seen as symbolic?  Perhaps, but corporate influence over those running universities has had effects on curriculum and other corporate-university relationships – more than stockholding has in terms of influence.

Far more relevant would be to get schools and other institutions to replace fossil fuel use with demand reduction and clean, non-burn alternatives. This would directly stop their financial support for climate change, while becoming demonstration sites for how we should all live. Ending reliance on industry-funded scientific research (and getting more public funding for it) would also go a long way to end the “science for hire” that has our universities cranking out “tobacco science” promoting dirty energy.

Bloomberg isn’t something I’d normally cite, but they hit the nail on the head with this recent opinion piece

“If divestment activists were serious about making a difference, setting an example, and drawing the full weight of America’s moral opprobrium onto the makers and consumers of fossil fuels, they’d be pushing a University Agenda that looked more like this:

  1. Require administrators, faculty, sports teams and other student groups to travel exclusively by boat and rail, except for “last mile” journeys.
  2. Cease construction of new buildings on campus.
  3. Stop air conditioning buildings, except for laboratories and archives that require climate control. Keep the heat no higher than 60 degrees in winter.
  4. Put strict caps on power consumption by students, keeping it to enough electricity to power one computer and one study lamp. Remove power outlets from classrooms, except for one at the front for the teacher.
  5. Ban meat from campus eateries and require full-time students to be on a meal plan.
  6. Remove all parking spots from campus.
  7. Stop operating campus shuttles, except for disabled students.
  8. Divest the endowment from fossil-fuel companies, if it makes you feel better

Why has No. 8 jumped to No. 1? Because it’s easy. Because a group of students pushing endowment divestiture can shut down a public meeting and be rewarded with the opportunity to hold a teach-in; a group of students pushing a faculty flying ban and the end of campus parking would find the powers that be considerably more unfriendly. Not to mention their fellow students. Or, for that matter, their fellow activists, few of whom are actually ready to commit to never in their lives traveling out of America’s pitiful passenger rail network. This is what I meant in an earlier post where I said that doing the easy but pointless thing is a substitute for, rather than a complement to, the hard and necessary thing.”

Dirty Energy is NOT just Fossil Fuels

 

Especially since the campaign is a symbolic one, it’s important that we educate people properly and stop feeding the perception that fossil fuels are the only dirty energy source, or the only fuels cooking the climate. This focus on fossil fuels has major blind spots, both for the climate and environmental justice.

Trash incineration, biomass incineration, landfill gas burning and biofuels are all promoted as renewable and carbon neutral, even though they’re worse than their worst fossil fuel counterparts. Nuclear power is also a serious problem, with its own climate impacts, which sucks up the money needed to transition away from fossil fuels.

Trash incineration is 2.5 times as bad for the climate as coal, and is far worse by every other measure of pollutants as well.  New EPA loopholes, as well as Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are poised to have coal plants and all sorts of boilers start burning trash without regulation or community notification. Divestment, like other climate policies, ignores incinerator emissions, even though over half of the CO2 emissions from trash incineration are from the burning of plastics and other fossil-fuel-derived products.

Biomass incineration is 50% worse than coal for the climate, and claims of carbon neutrality have been repeatedly debunked. “Save the climate, burn a tree” doesn’t make for a catchy cause, but forests in the U.S. are being logged for this “renewable” power, and are even being chipped and shipped (with fossil fuels) to Europe to be burned in converted giant coal plants. Ignoring “biogenic” CO2 emissions is just another form a climate denial.

Landfill gas burning for energy is even worse than trash incineration, as organic wastes are continually fed to landfills to become CO2 and methane. Burning the gas for energy, ironically, causes more gas to escape the already pitiful gas capture systems, making it worse to use for energy than to just waste and flare the gas (even if coal were displaced by the small amount of power generated). True zero waste solutions are needed, including keeping organics out of landfills, to tackle this major methane source.

Biofuels are worse than petroleum  for the climate, necessitating that we stop trying to grow fuels (using natural gas-based nitrogen fertilizers and other fossil inputs), and move away from burnable fuels altogether.

Nuclear power is the most expensive (and subsidized) form of power and one of the most destructive and racist. It is a false solution that sucks up all of the economic resources needed to transition away from fossil fuels. It also uses a significant amount of fossil fuels to chew up large amounts of land and bring uranium through four energy-intensive steps of processing before it can be used in a reactor.

By making these dirty energy climate impacts invisible, divestment campaigns feed the perception that these energy sources are valid alternatives to fossil fuels. A campaign that is more symbolic than strategic should at least ensure that its campaigners “get it” about these false solutions, and not pretend that their impacts are zero. More troubling is the fact that nuclear power and incineration disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. Keeping their struggles invisible perpetuates the injustices.

Even natural gas is partially greenwashed by divestment, since it only measures the top corporate divestment targets in terms of CO2 emissions – without including the substantial leaks of gas throughout the system that cause fracked gas to be worse than coal for the climate. If leaked methane was properly accounted for, far more fracking companies would be campaign targets. Since the campaign only targets extraction-sector corporations, the energy utilities and power plant developers driving the market for the gas are left untouched, even though demand-side campaigning would be far more effective.

Fossil Fuel Divestment is NOT based on the Anti-Apartheid Divestment Campaign

 

Fossil fuel divestment is not like divestment from South African apartheid. The Free Burma movement of the 1990s was. In both cases, multinational corporations were pressured to divest from specific countries.  In the mid-1990s, after the Free Burma movement pressured Pepsico to leave Burma, where the company had sponsored trade shows for the military junta, Texaco was the next major campaign target. Texaco was working to build a gas pipeline through the rainforest using slave labor. Soon after the University of Wisconsin system divested over $230,000 in Texaco stock, specifically over this issue, Texaco pulled out of the pipeline project, just before they were about to be the target of a new national student campaign. These victories in Burma and South Africa were possible because corporations were pressured to cut their losses by dropping one small part of their overall operation.

 

Targeting the Wrong Corporations

 

Unlike those earlier divestment campaigns, the Fossil Fuel Divestment strategy is asking Exxon to stop being Exxon. If the campaign wanted to directly change corporate behavior through divestment, it needs to go after the corporations that can afford to make these changes, such as targeting the banks that finance dirty energy, or the cement companies that provide cement casings for fracking wells, or the power plant developers and utilities driving the demand for coal and gas. Such a campaign needs to target the corporations that enable the Exxon’s of the world, not expect Exxon itself to respond to minor fluctuations in stock price.

 

Reinvesting in What?

 

Unless reinvested wisely, money will just shift to other bad corporations, like the banks that finance fossil fuels, or companies that supply them, or other types of dirty energy. Shifting investments away from the top 200 corporations targeted by the campaign could likely mean shifting to smaller fossil fuel corporations, as Haverford College points out:

 

The campaign focuses on 200 companies identified as having the largest proven reserves of fossil fuel resources, but does not address investments in other companies with marginally smaller fossil fuel reserves, or in companies with closely related activities, such as drilling and exploration services. When the College investigated a claim that a portfolio can be ‘optimized’ to exclude the 200 named companies while closely tracking the performance of a broad index fund, we learned that this was accomplished by replacing the excluded fossil fuel companies with other, smaller fossil fuel companies and associated service companies. We question the symbolic power of a strategy that would merely replace certain fossil fuel companies with other players in the same or related industry.”

 

Shifting from the targeted 200 corporations to smaller or ancillary fossil fuel companies or their funders is the opposite of strategic. These other corporations are the ones who could more easily be moved by a divestment campaign.

 

As the divestment campaign evolves, the need for reinvesting in clean solutions has become more of a priority.  However, there are inherent contradictions in trying to play within the confines of institutions that insist on getting high returns on their “investments.” Even the term “investment” is misleading, as putting money into stock markets is more akin to gambling than investing, and is more often about getting money out of corporations (by doing nothing to earn it), than about stock being used to build the company.

 

Marjorie Kelly, co-founder (and for 20 years, president) of Business Ethics magazine, points this out in her book, The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy. After touting socially-responsible business for decades, she came to the conclusion that corporations are inherently incapable of being socially responsible, and wrote that book to outline how corporations should be radically redesigned. The intro of her book explains: 

 

Stockholders fund major public corporations -- True or false?

 

False.  Or, actually, a tiny bit true — but for the most part, massively false.  In fact, “investing” dollars don't go to AT&T but to other speculators.  Equity investments reach a public corporation only when new common stock is sold — which for major corporations is a rare event.  Among the Dow Jones industrials, only a handful has sold any new common stock in thirty years.  Many have sold none in fifty years.”

 

The capitol flow for these large corporations is in the opposite direction, forcing the corporation to internalize profits, externalize costs and constantly grow as fast as possible. The very nature of investing supports an economic growth model that is killing the planet.  Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. As Edward Abbey once said, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”  As a friend put it to me, “first we knew that the earth was flat, then we knew the earth was round… now we know that the earth is constantly growing.”

 

Clearly, we need to move beyond this understanding of the world, as if we can expect corporations to constantly grow the economy, returning profits to shareholders as if resources are endless. If we don’t challenge this premise and these economic models, we’re just reinforcing this market-based capitalist framework that brought us these problems in the first place. We need a steady state economy, but such an economic model isn’t something that an institution can invest in, expecting a return.

 

Are we smashing capitalism yet?

 

After the huge People’s Climate March, I participated in “Flood Wall Street” – a sit-in a few blocks from Wall Street, which stopped traffic (but not Wall Street) for several hours. Many were eager to “smash capitalism” – which I support – but I find it amusing how it’s framed as a one-step act, perhaps to be done on the way home from work. The idea is usually offered up by those who can’t articulate what the first steps might be to smash capitalism. I think it’s safe to say that shifting investments from a set of 200 large corporations to other corporations (large or small) is not a step toward smashing the capitalist growth-based economic model that is cooking our planet.

 

Worker-owned cooperatives and publicly-owned energy systems are one good step away from corporate control. However, they generally aren’t the sorts of systems that return profits to absentee shareholders.  Using investments as the primary tactic limits the campaign to alternatives that are still growth-based and expectant on making money by doing nothing. The best alternative I’ve heard, which is a wonderful idea, is to reinvest endowments in the creation of new cooperatives to reduce energy demand locally and return some of the savings to the investors. We need to hit a point where all home and building owners are approached with offers to fund their maximizing use of conservation, efficiency and non-burn heating and electricity alternatives. This approach couples the investment alternatives with a real way to reduce use of fossil (and bio-) fuels.

 

Evolving the Campaign & "Divesting" in the Broad Sense

 

The two main national U.S. student socially responsible investment (SRI) movements in the 1990s rapidly evolved and radicalized once they saw the need to have a deeper anti-corporate analysis.  That analysis was informed, in large part, by the "Taking Care of Business" booklet that launched the modern anti-corporate personhood movement, and related materials. The 2003 documentary, The Corporationwhich exposes how modern corporations meet the government’s definition of a psychopath, is also an eye-opener calling us to a deeper analysis and more meaningful tactics.  

 

We need to “divest” in a much broader sense. Let’s stop the 300-some proposed gas-fired power plants while there’s still time. Let’s also stop the rest of the dirty energy infrastructure, whether it be the popular pipeline to protest, the not-so-known pipelines, the Bakken crude oil “bomb trains,” the coal and nuclear facilities, or the biomass and waste incinerators. Let’s attack the demand by making campuses and communities into models of how to get away from burning anything to meet our energy needs. Let’s look honestly at the need to end animal agriculture and be willing to talk to people about what they eat, and change institutional choices in the matter. Let’s challenge one another’s environmental organizations to admit that deeper changes are needed, to focus on some of the immediate threats they’re ignoring, and to stop promoting bad policies, like Obama’s Clean Power Plan, carbon tax or trading schemes, and “renewable” energy policies that include biomass or other combustion sources.

 

Plugging in: Students seeking out a more radical (getting to the root of a problem), justice-oriented way to plug in are encouraged to check out the Student Environmental Action Coalition and to explore our campus organizing resources, including our Energy Justice Shale Initiative (formerly Energy Justice Summer) and Frack U. programs, supporting grassroots resistance to fracking. Anyone seeking to work with front-line impacted communities, or wanting to explore how reinvestment can benefit some of the environmental justice communities we work with (like Chester, PA) should get in touch with us at Energy Justice Network and check out our map of communities impacted by dirty energy and waste facilities.

 

Mike Ewall is founder and director of Energy Justice Network, a national support network for grassroots activists fighting dirty energy and waste facilities.