Obama and Romney Unite on Destructive Bioenergy Policy

President Barack Obama and Republican Party Nominee Mitt Romney may not see eye to eye on issues like same-sex marriage, immigration, or abortion, but when it comes to the candidates’ harmful stances on biomass energy and biofuels, the two might as well be running on the same ticket.


Governor Mitt Romney 

Technically, Romney’s white paper on energy policy, The Romney Plan For A Stronger Middle Class: Energy Independence, contains only a single mention of the word biofuels. Yet reading between the lines of his plan suggests that an expansion of industrial-scale bioenergy is very much on the former Massachusetts Governor’s agenda.

In broad strokes, Romney’s plan would seek to “dramatically increase domestic energy production” in hopes of reaching “North American energy independence” by 2020. While Romney’s main focus is to ramp up destructive oil and gas drilling, along with coal mining, his plan also supports development of wind, solar, hydroelectric and “other renewable energy facilities.”

The Republican hopeful’s thorough drubbing of the President over the closing of the Solyndra solar panel factory makes it hard to think of Romney as a strong supporter of solar energy—this from the man whose idea of clean energy is “developing alternative sources of energy like biodiesel, ethanol, nuclear, and coal gasification.”  

More clues to Romney’s stance on biomass energy include his desire to stimulate domestic energy production by allowing states to trump federal control of public lands—such as National Forests—and to “reform” environmental laws so they aren’t “paralyzing industry.” He also wants to get rid of “regulatory barriers to a diversification of the electrical grid, fuel system, or vehicle fleet,” which opens the floodgates to everything under the sun, including bioenergy.

The Republican’s support of the Renewable Fuel Standard equates to a vote for biofuels, as the policy requires the blending of 36 billion gallons of “renewable fuel” from crops, grasses and trees into transportation fuel by 2022. 

It’s certain that Romney’s rise to power would mean a massive and devastating uptick in drilling for oil, fracking for natural gas, and mining for coal on public lands. It’s also a safe bet that this federal lands free-for-all would involve an onslaught of logging in National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings, with biomass incinerators the destination for much of these forests.

“From oil and gas and coal to wind and solar and biofuels,” the Romney plan decrees, “states are far better able to develop, adopt, and enforce regulations based on their unique resources, geology, and local concerns.” Romney would establish a “State Energy Development Council,” to give states the power to “establish processes to oversee the development and production of all forms of energy on federal lands within their borders.”

While the plan claims energy development would exclude “lands specially designated off-limits,” it’s unclear whether this refers to Wilderness Areas, Wildlife Refuges, or simply tracts where neither oil, gas, coal, nor biomass are to be found in great enough quantities to be profitable.


President Barack Obama

President Obama’s position on biomass and biofuels is far less speculative than Romney’s, based on the Democrat’s actions over the last four years. According to the biomass industry trade magazine, Biomass Magazine, Obama “has assembled somewhat of a ‘bioenergy dream team,’” referring to strongly pro-bioenergy heads of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) (Tom Vilsack), Department of Energy (DOE) (Steven Chu), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Lisa Jackson) and even the Navy (Ray Mabus).

Much of Obama’s biomass boosting has come in the form of a deluge of billions of dollars of taxpayer subsidies to the polluting bioenergy industry. His own plan trumpets the fact that “both through the Recovery Act and the 2008 Farm Bill, DOE and USDA have provided grants, loans and loan guarantees to spur American ingenuity on the next generation of biofuels.”

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), or Stimulus Act, alone handed over $800 million for the development of advanced biofuels and over $100 million to build nine new biomass incinerators through Act 1603, which provides 1/3 of construction costs up front in lieu of tax credits.

The Farm Bill’s Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) forked over hundreds more millions for more biomass. The Renewable Electricity Tax Production Credit bailed out the biomass industry to the tune of $0.011 per kilowatt hour, or approximately $10 per megawatt hour, while federal loan guarantees under the Department of Energy furnished further millions.

In April 2012, Obama pledged another $35 million for biomass and biofuels through the Biomass Research and Development Initiative.  

The President’s March 2011 “Energy Blueprint” seeks to “encourage increased use of biofuels, including both ethanol and advanced biofuels.” Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 6 made one mention of biofuels: “We’re offering a better path, a future…where farmers and scientists harness new biofuels to power our cars and trucks…” 

In a September 4 executive order, the President announced his intention to expand combined-heat-and-power (CHP) biomass facilities by 40 gigawatts by 2020, a 50% increase from current levels. Specifically, Obama would push this forward through the “promotion of utility partnerships with the CHP industry…[and] the encouragement of effective and innovative CHP policies and financing.” The order states that “it is reasonable to expect CHP applications to operate at 65–75 percent efficiency.” Stand alone biomass power plants operate at roughly 25% efficiency.

Obama’s EPA regulates greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) emitted from large-power plants, such as coal burning facilities. But in July 2011, the EPA allowed biomass incinerators to continue to be permitted and built for another three years without being subject to the rules that other facilities now must comply with. While the rule effectively ended the permitting of new coal power plants, EPA is encouraging states to allow the burning of biomass to be considered Best Available Control Technology (BACT) for reducing greenhouse gases, so that coal power plants can burn trees—releasing more carbon dioxide than they otherwise would—and pretend that they’re lowering emissions.  


Two Heads, One Body

When it comes to bioenergy, the stances of President Obama and Governor Romney are virtually the same. Both candidates have come together on an aggressively pro-biomass and biofuels platform that ignores the resulting increase in lung disease from particulate matter emissions, the contribution to runaway climate change, the watershed degradation, the forest destruction, and the disproportionate negative impacts on low income Americans and communities of color.

And it goes without saying that both “major party” candidates ignore the crumbling foundation propping up their shaky energy policies as a whole: the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet.