April 2015
Volume 6, Issue 4

Mining the Soil for Biomass Energy
(April 2015)

Biomass: The Unsustainable Energy Source

- by Atheo, Aletho News

The promotional material from Big Green Energy, aka Biomass Gas & Electric, presents biomass as "clean, renewable energy," sustainable and green. The U.S. Department of Energy uses the terms "clean and renewable" when introducing visitors at its website to the topic.

But is it accurate to describe the repeated removal of biomass from agricultural or forested lands as sustainable? A quick review of some basics on the role of organic matter in soils belies the claim.


To support healthy plant life, soil must contain organic matter, plants don't thrive on minerals and photosynthesis alone. As organic matter breaks down in soil nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur are released. Organic matter is the main source of energy (food) for microorganisms. A higher level of microbial activity at a plant's root zone increases the rate of nutrient transfer to the plant. As the organic matter decreases in soil so does this biochemical activity. Without organic matter, soil biochemical activity would nearly stop.

In addition to being a storehouse of nutrients, decaying plant matter keeps soil loose, helping soil remain both porous and permeable as well as gaining better water holding capacity. This is not only beneficial to plant growth but is essential for soil stability. Soil becomes more susceptible to erosion of all types as organic matter content is reduced.

The value of returning organic matter to the soil has been well-known to farmers since the earliest days of agriculture. Crop residues and animal waste are tilled back into the soil to promote fertility.

Denny Haldeman of the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign asserts that there is no documentation of the sustainability of repeated biomass removals on most soil types. Most documentation points to nutrient losses, soil depletion and decreased productivity in just one or two generations.


Soil is Not Renewable

- by Friends of the Wild Swan and Swan View Coalition

Soils are the foundation of terrestrial life. Forest productivity is directly tied to soil conditions. Soil takes thousands of years to develop and is not "renewable" on a human time scale.

Soil is an ecosystem in itself that must be healthy in order to provide for healthy forests, grasslands, and aquatic systems. Actions impacting such complex systems are prone to unintended consequences. Given the life-support role soils play, special care and prudence are essential. 

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The National Forest Management Act (NFMA) prohibits "irreversible damage" to soils as well as "substantial and permanent impairment of productivity of land." Loss of soil (erosion) and displacement clearly cause "irreversible damage" and "permanent impairment of productivity of land." Loss of coarse woody debris causes soil damage that can last a century or more. Soil compaction negatively impacts soil productivity, overland flow, erosion, stream sedimentation, and late season flows. Soil compaction from logging can persist 50 - 80 years.

Avoiding soil damage is the only option; full restoration of soil damage is not generally possible. Compacted soils are not completely mechanically restorable. Mechanized decompaction is only partially effective at decompacting and can compound problems by mixing rock and mineral soil with topsoil resulting in long term reduced productivity. Replacing eroded or displaced soil is problematic. Artificial coarse woody debris replacement is not practical over large areas such as burned clearcuts.

Timber harvest practices including road building, log skidding and slash disposal have caused most soil damage on forest lands.


Save America's Forests and Wildlands from Congress

- by Carl Ross, Save America's Forests

Extreme anti-environmental legislation in the U.S. Congress threatens our public wildlands.  

Republicans, now in control of the U.S. Congress, are promoting legislation that will undermine over a century of conservation laws which protect endangered species and wild ecosystems. The new Congress wants to hand over the keys to up to one half billion acres of America's public lands to extractive industries to clearcut, mine, drill, graze and pollute with no environmental limits. 


We will fight the liquidation of our public lands, such as Representative Peter DeFazio's bill to virtually privatize 1.5 million acres of Oregon's public forests for clearcutting by the timber industry without federal environmental laws.

Our goals are to designate large new wilderness areas and national parks and to pass stronger conservation laws that protect and restore native species and ecosystems on our public lands.

We need to create a million-citizens network to stop Congress from liquidating our public wildlands. We need to tell government officials to protect our priceless ancient and wild forests, roadless areas, deserts, plains, and wild rivers -- our irreplaceable natural heritage of publicly owned lands from destruction by giant oil, coal, grazing, mining, and logging corporations.

Please add your name (and group or business) to tell Congress to protect our public forests and wildlands by sending an email to carl AT saveamericasforests DOT org.  


The Biomass Monitor is the nation's leading publication covering the health and environmental impacts of biomass energy. We are accepting submissions at thebiomassmonitor AT

Photos: Josh Schlossberg, White River National Forest, Colorado


Josh Schlossberg, Mike Ewall, and Samantha Chirillo

Editors, The Biomass Monitor

For subscriptions, blog, and back issues go to:


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- by Josh Schlossberg, Editor

Trees might be renewable, but the topsoil they depend on to grow isn't -- 500 years to replenish a single inch of the stuff.

Logging for biomass energy -- where the entire tree, from trunk to branches, is removed from the forest -- has a greater impact on forest soils than logging for lumber alone. In addition to the typical soil compaction and erosion from heavy machinery, biomass logging strips high-nutrient branches and twigs from the forest floor, robbing soils of  fertility.

Bioenergy logging also harms a forest's ability to store and sequester carbon dioxide, as demonstrated by a 2014 study from the University of Vermont. And that's on top of eliminating crucial wildlife habitat for mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.  
Despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, the biomass industry and its boosters inexplicably maintain that logging for biomass doesn't have any additional impact on forest ecosystems. As The Biomass Monitor has proven time and time again through our photographs, an increasing amount of forests are being logged -- and clearcut -- specifically for biomass energy. In other cases, specific trees that would ordinarily not be cut for lumber are logged and burned in biomass facilities, while the woody material that would ordinarily be left onsite to assist the forest's recovery is removed.

If coal were mined and burned at the slow rate it's formed over long geological time frames, one could argue that it's a renewable energy source. The same holds for logging for biomass energy, as soils aren't renewed at the pace with which they're destroyed. With that perspective in mind, bioenergy logging can more accurately be called soil mining.   

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Top 10 Biomass Stories in the News

Follow The Biomass Monitor on Facebook and Twitter for breaking bioenergy news.

1. Soil Erosion May Get Us Before Climate Change Does

2. RWE Drops Biomass Power, Adds Biomass Thermal, Wind

3. Hardwood Trees Chipped for Nova Scotia Biomass

4. Wisconsin Governor Wants to Cut $8 Million from Bioenergy Research

5. Firing Up Hawaiian Biomass Facility

6. Local Opposition Affects Oregon Biofuel Plant

7. BLM Plan to Convert Nevada's Pinyon Forests to Biomass Threatens Ancient Rituals

8. Syracuse City Council Seeks Alternatives to Incineration

9. Gypsum, CO Biomass Incinerator Still Off-Line After December Fire

10. Kauai Biomass Facility to Get Fuel from Burned Forest



Biomass Truth Conference Call

Jon Rhodes, hydrologist and director of Planeto Azul Hydrology, has twenty-five years of experience evaluating the impacts of logging and road building on forest ecosystems and watersheds.

Call in on Thurs, April 16 at 5 pm PT / 8 ET for "Mining the Soil for Biomass Energy" to learn about the impacts of "fire fuels reduction" and logging for biomass energy on forest soils.

Email thebiomassmonitor AT for call-in number.