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EXCLUSIVE: Biomass Energy and the Carbon Neutral Shell Game

- by Brett Leuenberger, July 6, 2015 (Graphics by Brett Leuenberger)
Related Content: Biomass Incineration and Climate (debunking carbon neutrality)
Who would have ever thought that clean renewable energy could come from a smokestack? And yet, according to our U.S. government and the biomass industry, that’s exactly what’s happening when you burn trees (biomass) for energy. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to renewable energy, I think of wind turbines and solar panels producing clean, emission-free renewable energy.
While the final rulemaking process for biomass emissions is still in review, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released this memo last November from Janet McCabe to industry stakeholders, which endorses most biomass emissions as carbon neutral:
  • "For waste-derived feedstocks, the EPA intends to propose exempting biogenic CO2 emissions from GHG BACT analyses and anticipates basing that proposal on the rationale that those emissions are likely to have minimal or no net atmospheric contributions of biogenic CO2 emissions, or even reduce such impacts, when compared with an alternate fate of disposal."
Most of us can agree with the fact that we’re facing unprecedented global climate change due to our use of fuels that emit greenhouse gases (mainly carbon) into the atmosphere. There are a few possible ways to address this global climate challenge. One way is to vastly reduce or terminate our use of carbon emitting fuel sources by transitioning to emission-free energy sources like wind, solar and tidal. We could expand on that idea by creating hyper-local communities that focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy through the use of micro-grids. That’s why the carbon emissions from biomass are so critically important, especially as we look to our future energy and transportation needs and how those choices affect our earth’s climate.
The Biomass Boondoggle
There are multiple environmental issues with burning wood for biomass energy. Burning wood (pulp, chips, trimmings, sawdust residues and whole trees) for biomass energy actually emits more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than fossil fuels. Compared to fossil fuels, woody biomass is significantly less energy efficient and you need to burn at least twice as much wood to produce the same amount of thermal energy. For example, one ton of wood pellets produce 16.5 million BTU’s of energy while one ton of #2 fuel oil produces (52% more) 33.8 million BTU’s of energy.
Burning trees for biomass is a double whammy for the environment; not only are you adding more carbon emissions than fossil fuels, but you are also removing trees that work as carbon sinks and sequester vast amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. The biomass industry claims they use low value waste wood for fuel, but overwhelming evidence shows the industry repeatedly using whole trees for biomass and wood pellet production. 
Similarly, the industry is not obligated to account for the immediate or future loss of carbon sequestration from harvested trees. When compared to other “free” renewable energy sources like wind and solar, biomass energy is considerably more expensive to operate and requires long-term costs for sourcing the woody biomass fuel. Likewise, using woody biomass as a fuel source for electric utility power is not always cost effective in a competitively priced energy market. Here’s an example of a biomass plant forced to shut down; it was cheaper to remain idle than trying to supply power to the grid, leaving ratepayers on the hook.
The emissions from woody biomass contain high concentrations of particulates, which increase the air quality health risks to humans. Burning biomass exacerbates the problem of ocean acidification by taking locked-up terrestrial carbon (trees) and transforming it to atmospheric carbon dioxide, which is the major cause of ocean acidification. The growing U.S. biomass industry is creating an increased demand for wood, which can escalate clearcutting, deforestation, forest fragmentation, land-use changes and species habitat loss, as pointed out in this multi-disciplinary collegiate study from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

What Grows in the Forest, Stays in the Forest

The importance of forest ecosystems to store and sequester carbon is a critical part to combatting global climate change. The healthy cycle of forest growth and decay supports the cultivation of mosses and lichens, which in a recent study revealed that they are responsible for sequestering one third of the earth’s terrestrial carbon. Likewise, forests are extremely important in capturing and holding carbon in deep mineral soil. Global scientists are now promoting and implementing afforestation practices to help reduce CO2 levels and increase forest carbon sinks. In an effort to help mitigate CO2 emissions, the U.S. Forest Service is cooperatively working with state agencies in the removal and thinning of trees for wildfire prevention and as a source of biomass fuel, but evidence shows that this practice actually increases carbon emissions. 
This is what Oregon State University (OSU) had to say in its study:
  • Even if wood removed by thinning is used for biofuels it will not eliminate the concern. Previous studies at OSU have indicated that, in most of western Oregon, use of wood for biofuels will result in a net loss of carbon sequestration for at least 100 years, and probably much longer.
This forest biomass study from OSU has taken on a new importance considering that Oregon just passed a bill (SB 752) to become the first state to declare woody biomass as carbon neutral.
The Magical Carbon Neutral Machine
The EPA claims that woody biomass is carbon neutral because the industry is using waste wood that would be landfilled or incinerated and new trees can quickly regrow and reabsorb the carbon emissions made from the biomass energy in a process known as the short-timeframe carbon cycle. They also claim that fossil fuel emissions are not carbon neutral because that carbon is primarily locked up in the bedrock layer and is part of the long-timeframe carbon cycle. The EPA’s carbon accounting claims for both biomass and fossil fuel emissions can categorically be argued.
First of all, the biomass carbon that is reabsorbed and sequestered by new tree growth can’t be accurately measured in a timeframe that reflects the carbon neutral point. The EPA’s overly complicated review of assessing the carbon emissions recovery period for biomass suggests a quick timeframe of less than a couple decades, while arguably others in the scientific community proclaim the carbon emissions from biomass could take upwards of 45 years to become only as bad as coal, and hundreds of years to approach carbon neutrality.
Another important and overlooked issue with burning biomass is the unnatural movement of terrestrial carbon to atmospheric carbon dioxide. Our atmosphere will be in a perpetual state of having significant “carbon debt” because every day the growing biomass industry is instantly ejecting massive amounts of CO2 emissions into the air which took decades for the removed trees to sequester and store as terrestrial carbon.
Just because you can sequester and regrow more trees doesn’t mean that biomass is carbon neutral; it’s the precarious location and duration of the biomass CO2 emissions in our biosphere during its uncertain carbon recovery period that poses a direct threat to our climate. The biomass CO2 emissions that are poured into our atmosphere don’t just magically disappear; those emissions have a timeline of sequestration known as the carbon recovery period. Every day a new timeline of biomass emissions with its own carbon recovery period is stacked into our atmosphere. As those emission timelines overlap, the cumulative amount of CO2 rises dramatically creating a bubble of carbon debt.
Essentially, the EPA’s carbon neutral stance on woody biomass is bolstering a cycle of perpetual carbon debt, which is in direct conflict with President Obama’s latest White House press release that addresses forest biomass energy as not categorically carbon neutral.
Secondly, fossil fuels are derived from plant and animal biomass and both (biomass and fossil fuels) are made up of organic carbon compounds, therefore their carbon emissions should be scientifically measured equally. Biomass and fossil fuels are both part of the ongoing natural process of carbon growth, carbon sequestration and geologic carbon reclamation that occurs within our lithosphere. Essentially the only difference between a tree branch and a piece of coal is time and pressure. Carbon is carbon; you can’t have good emissions and bad emissions, they both are major unwieldy sources of greenhouse gases that contribute to global climate change and need to be treated as such. 
The Dirty New Face of Renewable Energy
The carbon neutrality of woody biomass has become the means to playing a dangerous renewable energy shell game and here’s why. Presently the EPA is cooperatively working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to promote the use of woody biomass as a carbon neutral renewable energy solution to replace the carbon emissions of fossil fuels and to help achieve emission compliance for President Obama’s controversial Clean Power Plan.
The EPA is also ignoring its own science that proves the high emissions of biomass, as pointed out by Glenn Hurowitz in an article published in Catapult:
  • Unfortunately, while EPA recognizes in its statement that burning trees for electricity can produce substantial pollution, and that it should be subject to strong carbon accounting procedures, its actual policy does little to ensure that any actual carbon accounting will occur. EPA says that states should be able to set standards for “sustainability,” but doesn’t define what amounts to sustainability. That’s a loophole big enough to drive a bulldozer through.
In the EPA’s November 2014 Revised Framework for Assessing Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources, they were quoted as saying:
  • The plant growth associated with producing many of the biomass-derived fuels can, to varying degrees for different biomass feedstocks, sequester carbon from the atmosphere. For example, America’s forests currently play a critical role in addressing carbon pollution, removing nearly 12 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions each year. As a result, broadly speaking, burning biomass-derived fuels for energy recovery can yield climate benefits as compared to burning conventional fossil fuels.
By its own admission, the EPA is promoting (more carbon emissions) the burning of our forests that are already effectively sequestering the carbon emissions from fossil fuels. This is a shell game tactic; the EPA is simply replacing emissions with emissions and calling it renewable. More importantly, it’s the change in location of these carbon emissions that becomes vitally important. You’re basically harvesting locked up terrestrial carbon (trees) and moving it to atmospheric CO2, which in turn increases global warming.
The EPA makes no mistake about its intentions to foster the use of woody biomass as a primary renewable energy source for states to meet their federal clean air standards, with this quote from their revised framework assessment:
  • Because of the positive attributes of certain biomass-derived fuels, the EPA also recognizes that biomass-derived fuels can play an important role in CO2 emission reduction strategies. We anticipate that states likely will consider biomass-derived fuels in energy production as a way to mitigate the CO2 emissions attributed to the energy sector and include them as part of their plans to meet the emission reduction requirements of this rule and we think it is important to define a clear path for states to do so.
With the EPA green lighting the woody biomass and wood pellet industry as carbon neutral, other emission-free renewable energy industries like wind and solar stand to suffer. The biomass industry is the fastest growing renewable energy segment in the United States, and in 2014, the U.S. more than doubled its exports from the previous year to become the largest wood pellet exporter for biomass fuel in the world. Wood pellet exports are expected to increase 400% by 2019.
The biomass industry continues to rely on the EPA’s flawed science and blindly promotes biomass as carbon neutral with a concerted public greenwashing campaign. For instance, the forest industry recently published, which tries to discredit the findings of entities that expose the carbon emission problems with burning biomass. The industry and stakeholders clearly stand to gain monetarily if biomass is promoted as a carbon neutral source of renewable energy.
Instead of the EPA grandstanding its attention on the carbon neutrality of woody biomass, they should be measuring the actual amount of biomass used at the source and its future carbon sequestration loss, along with the measured carbon emissions generated from the smokestack to determine if it’s a viable energy source that actually reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Replacing the carbon emissions from fossil fuels with the higher carbon emissions of biomass is not carbon neutral and does nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if anything it makes it worse.  
Woody biomass energy has the highest carbon emissions and is one of the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet, and yet the EPA and the biomass industry continually promote it as carbon neutral. Fortunately there are many vitally important renewable and energy efficiency industries that are working diligently to support and commercialize emission-free energy sources that foster the reversal of global climate change while ensuring our long-term energy and transportation needs.