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Home » Community Blogs » Biomass Energy Juggernaut Threatens Human and Forest Health
New legislation designated to encourage energy independence and less reliance on oil could backfire and indirectly create new pressures for massive forest destruction. Large scale commercial wood biomass energy poses a threat to our forest ecosystem, human health and will contribute to the production and release of even more global warming gases.

Biomass Energy Juggernaut Threatens Human and Forest Health

The long awaited Kerry-Lieberman energy bill known as The America Power Act has, among other goodies for industry, a clause that legally defines biomass incineration as “carbon-neutral” and “renewable.” Biomass includes field stubble, sewage, construction waste, municipal garage, and other sources, but the largest source for commercial biomass electrical generation plants is wood.

While I cannot comment on the merits of the bill overall, the provisions that would allow wood biomass energy to be labeled as renewable and carbon neutral poses a real threat to our forest ecosystem, human health, and global planetary climate. Already in Europe two thirds of the “renewable” energy portfolio comes from wood biomass—and increasingly that wood is being imported from even outside of Europe including the US and South America.

This legislation will only increase the demand for wood biomass consumption. Far more dangerous is the legislation helps to promote the widespread perception that burning woody biomass is somehow “green” energy. Since many government entities from local cities to states now require renewable energy as part of their energy portfolios, defining wood energy as a renewable energy creates a direct economic windfall profit for the timber industry.

Worse, the use of woody biomass burning to meet renewable portfolio “clean energy” mandates is a fraud perpetuated on unsuspecting consumers, many of whom believe when they are paying for “renewable” electricity they are supporting the development of clean and truly renewable sources like wind and solar energy. Instead, millions of taxpayers’ dollars are being poured into incinerators and subsidies for the cutting of forests to provide biomass energy that could be better spent on energy conservation.

Unfortunately like the ethanol debacle that has taxpayers subsidizing corn-based ethanol that uses more energy to produce than it creates when burned, many are jumping on the biomass energy bandwagon with a similar lack of critical review of the claims of “green” energy.

One of the prevailing myths about biomass is that it is “carbon neutral.” Biomass combustion power plants are treated under regulatory and subsidy programs as if they emit “zero” carbon dioxide. Because of its low energy content, burning wood releases 1.5 times smokestack CO2 than burning coal to produce the same amount of energy.

Plus recent research suggests that logging disturbance of forest soils can increase carbon losses as well. Then there is the carbon emitted by the logging equipment, trucks that carry the wood to the mill, and so forth. Finally, since most wood biomass burners are expensive to operate, they are often supplemented with natural gas, coal, or other fossil fuels, which also emit carbon.

All this carbon is immediately added to the excessive amount of human-caused carbon already spewing into the atmosphere. Most climate scientists believe we need to not only limit new carbon sources, but reduce the current carbon levels.

The time factor for resequentration of carbon is a critical issue in the global warming discussion that is conveniently ignored by biomass advocates. Timber companies and wood biomass advocates argue that since trees regrow they will in effect re-sequester carbon released by burning biomass, so we can burn wood without serious consequences.

Unfortunately carbon sequestration takes decades to centuries to fully rebind the carbon released by burning. The peat industry and the governments of Finland and Sweden even want peat to be regarded as renewable biomass even though it takes thousands of years to renew a peat bog.

According to the Energy Information Administration projections, a 20% renewable standard in the US as called for in the Kerry-Liebermann energy legislation would result in the emission of 700 million tons of CO2 from biomass burning. This amount of C02 would represent about 10% of total US emissions in 2020. Yet these emissions would be unaccounted under current “carbon neutral” renewable energy legislation.

Worse, biomass energy emits a large amount of fine particulate matter. And many new plants are sized to have a generating capacity under 40 megawatts which avoids the requirements of the Clean Air Act for Best Available Control Technology and the application of PSD standards.

Even with pollution control devises biomass energy is dirty. For instance, the McNeil Biomass Energy Plant outside of Burlington Vermont sports the latest pollution control devises yet is the largest single source of air pollution in the state.

The American Lung Association’s national office issued a statement calling the America Power Act an “outrageous proposal [that] creates an open door through which millions of tons of life-threatening pollution could be allowed to flow. We oppose these provisions. The American Lung Association cannot support legislation that includes changes to the Clean Air Act that undermine the protection of public health.”

Perhaps overcoming these air pollution problems is the reason Senators Max Baucus and John Tester, along with Mike Crapo of Idaho introduced legislation to amend the Clean Air Act definition of “renewable” energy in hopes that this would increase the use of woody biomass for fuel.

Ironically Senator Baucus in his speech introducing the legislation notes that warmer winters have allowed pine beetles to flourish in Montana contributing to a large number of dead trees. Normally cold winters kill the beetles, keeping their numbers in check. Yet Baucus, along with Tester and Capro favor burning these trees for biomass energy without apparently considering that the resulting emissions would be adding to the global C02 levels, which in turn will create even warmer temperatures facilitating even greater beetle spread. I don’t expect Baucus or other Senators to be experts on energy and its consequences, but if I were them, I would be suspicious of my legislation if it is endorsed by the timber industry.

If you want to understand why Baucus, Capro and Tester are supporting this legislation, one needs to follow the money. In this case look no further than noting that Plum Creek Timber Company, the Darth Vader of the Northwest, has endorsed this proposal. According to news reports “Plum Creek applauds Senators Baucus, Tester and Crapo for their leadership. This bill will ensure wood is on an even playing field with other renewable energy materials … It will clarify much of the confusion in the marketplace, and will provide a strong incentive for the use of wood in producing green energy.”

Using the red herring that dead trees will increase fire severity and spread (another disputed assertion), most western wood biomass advocates suggest that logging the forests will reduce wildfires—an unproven assertion. Yet there is a growing body of research that suggests that thinning and removal of trees can sometimes increase wildfire intensity and spread. Furthermore dead trees are less likely to burn than drought stressed live green trees due to their flammable resins. But beyond those problems, even wildfires do not release nearly as much carbon as commercial biomass energy facilities. Most of the carbon in a forest remains on site either as charcoal in the soil and/or as snags that take decades to decompose.

Beyond these questionable assumptions about carbon neutral status, the assertion that using biomass is “renewable” is also unproven. Biomass energy requires huge amounts of wood. The repeated removal of large quantities of biomass from forests will impoverish forest soils. Burning all this material for biomass energy will threaten the long term sustainability of our forests.

Another long term problem posed by the America Power Act is the incentive it provides to create wood biomass plantations. Already much of the Southeast United States has been turned into sterile monocultures of pine for pulp and paper operations. If wood biomass becomes the fuel of choice to meet “renewable” energy standards as it is poised to do, we can expect even more of our natural forests to be converted into biomass monoculture tree plantations to the detriment of native species and native forests. Recently the USDA approved planting of a genetically modified tree designed to grow faster to fill the demand created by biomass energy.

Already, 50% the “renewable” energy in the U.S. comes from biomass incinerators. For instance, 82% of Pennsylvania “clean energy” comes from burning something. In Massachusetts, 49% of its renewable energy comes from biomass burning. In Massachusetts, five new wood burning electrical plants are proposed that would consume at least 2.4 million ton of wood per year. If the wood for these operations were limited to just the state of Massachusetts, collectively the five plants would vacuum all of the public and private forests in the state of its wood in just sixteen years.

If biomass energy production were fully implemented, it would become the single largest human impact to land in the country, requiring the near full utilization of all the U.S. forests and much of its agricultural lands for fuel production, contributing to what one TNC scientist has termed “energy sprawl.”

Beyond the threat posed by large scale commercial biomass energy production to the forests, human health, and the land in general, subsidizing biomass reduces the funding available for other energy production including energy conservation that would have far more beneficial and longer lasting value to society

About George Wuerthner

George Wuerthner has published 36 books, including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy

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  1. milburnschmidt

    Im confused again all this talk about Bio Mass is coming from green groups who spend all their time collaborating and forming partnerships and grabbing grants. It seems half want Bio mass and half want a stop to public land use and together they all ask for money to continue the fight. Is it possible this is all about raising money and keeping some folks working . Could there be a secret understanding to keep these folks from wotking real jobs by raising these useless studies. Tune in next week.

  2. Burning forests to generate electricity requires the heating and consumption of huge amounts of water. How much water will Tester’s biomass scheme for Seeley Lake suck from the Clearwater River? Large volumes lost to industrial evaporation will impact fisheries and recreation all the way down the Blackfoot, the Clark Fork, and the Columbia. Polluted water returned to the fragile aquatic ecosystem will add thermal impacts to native trout fisheries and water quality. Heads up Missoula, there’s more on the butcher’s chopping block than our public forests, biodiversity and taxdollars.

  3. Debate is a wonderful thing. It is so vitally important as we work to decrease our use of fossil fuels. However, this particular set of opinions casts little light on the subject — delivering more smoke, sound, and fury.

    I strongly recommend the following trustworthy sources for sound science on the subject:

    Northern Europe has been using biomass for electricity and heat for several decades. Many of the so-called “incinerators” are located in pleasant residential neighborhoods, with people happily living and breathing right next door.

    Scenarios of landscape destruction are not realistic. Here in the United States, some biopower plants have been operating for many years without destroying forests. In the pretty coastal town of New Bern, North Carolina, we have a 53 MW biopower plant that has been in operation for more than 19 years. Craven County Wood Energy (CCWE) consumes wood waste, sawdust, bark, and chipped wood that cannot be used for higher-valued products.

    There is plenty of solid science about this form of renewable energy. While every biomass power plant (or biofuels facility) should be evaluated on it’s individual merits and demerits, humans cannot afford to dismiss it entirely: We must use everything in the toolkit to fight climate change.

  4. George Wuerthner


    the one part of your statement that is unrealistic is that we “must do everything to fight climate change.”

    The problem with biomass is that it contributes to climate change by increasing CO2 which won’t be reabsorded for decades.

    The second problem is that use of biomass on a large scale will be a real threat to our forests. Even the current logging which removes biomass impoverishes forest soils, spreads weeds, compacts soils, and degrades forest habitat for everything from fish to mammals. Increasing the removal of even more biomass for energy will only makes this situation far worse.

    The problem is that most studies do not count the real costs of logging, removal of biomass from forests, nor the carbon produced.

  5. Mr Wuerthner,

    Yes, biomass energy releases CO2. And it is true that there is a time-lag before new biomass grows to re-capture it. However, neither of these facts fundamentally challenge the fact that biomass energy can be carbon neutral.

    We have decades of peer reviewed science telling us that biomass can be carbon neutral. Carbon life-cycle analysis is a very precise science, and it shows us that biomass is more climate-friendly than coal – by a long shot.

    Even Tim Searchinger – famous biofuels critic (and co-author of the SCIENCE magazine article highlighting the need for carbon-accounting with biomass energy) – has acknowledged that certain forms of biomass can be used for energy sustainably. The following article describes five major sources of biomass that are truly renewable and sustainable:

    Regarding threats to forests, I can only speak for the Southeastern region (as I do not know Western forests). Here in the Southeast, we have tens of millions of acres of tree farms. Over the past 3 or 4 decades, these were planted with the specific purpose of growing a crop — trees for paper. Most of this land has soil that was already ruined by 18th and 19th century farming of cotton. Pine trees are the most valuable thing that this land will grow, which is why so many private landowners planted pine trees.

    Some of this wood is used for higher values, like lumber or plywood. But markets for paper and lumber and other wood products are declining. We’re not building houses anymore. And we’re seeing paper mills close down and move to developing countries. If there is no other market for the wood from these tree farms, using some of this wood to displace coal will help reduce our societal carbon emissions.

    Perhaps this is the highest and best use for this land? Perhaps this is the best way for the people who own this land to keep it from being paved-over or turned into Wal-Marts.

    Sweeping universal assertions that ‘biomass is bad’ distract from the realities that this form of renewable energy is valid and worth careful consideration on a case-by-case basis.

    Yes, biomass may be complicated. But little is as easy as our addiction to coal — the real juggernaut that is destroying people and ecosystems.

  6. If the goal is to cut the use of fuels, the proper thing is to insitute rationing. Low income folks are already having to cut severely, but those with lots of bucks have no problems flying or driving, heating huge homes etc, and using LOTS of carbon based fuels at any cost. Rationing would cut evenly for everyone according to need, truckers for instance need to move food from A to Q for the benefit of everyone.

  7. And, what kind of carbon impact can be assessed for having forests that are restored to their former densities, vigor and health? How can wildfire size and severity reductions be quantified? Since our overstocked, dead and dying forests are ready to burn anyway, shouldn’t we be utilizing the “Precautionary Principle” to avoid some of the inevitable firestorms?? Treating biomass as a mere bonus to scientifically-sound forest management should ensure that forest ecosystems will not be sacrificed for cheap energy. Besides, we already have NEPA laws in place. Currently, here in California, biomass is being pulled out of the woods, piled and burned. There just isn’t any market for forest biomass here. Existing biomass plants get their stuff for free from agricultural activities.

  8. Our problem is we as individuals don’t want to have to work at anything or change our routines. There is plenty of biomass…it is called garbage. The technology is available to utilize all the biodegradable materials we throw out for our fuel. Unfortunately, that would require us all to step up and participate.

    The easiest route to solving a lot of our energy woes is simply conservation. the technologies are availble at Home Depot, but until energy codes get mandated, how many people go out and actually spend a few bucks now to save over the life of the building? That is somehting we can all participate in.

  9. Wow. I found a number of whoppers in this article which should have prohibited it from even being published.

    * The author blatantly misquotes the American Lung Association. Here is the link for the quote:
    The press release has *nothing* to do with biomass and addresses COAL. The way the author presents it you would think his views have the backing of the ALA.

    That’s a distortion of the ALA’s statement for which he should apologize.

    * He calls for the pines to be allowed to decompose. Then he moves on. But when they rot they create **greenhouse gases**! In the case of methane, powerful GHGs (20x as powerful as CO2). Funny how he didn’t mention that. Let’s be clear on our prescriptions.

    * He’s fond of the disingenuous term “biomass incinerator.” Well, this is inaccurate and loaded rhetoric. An “incinerator” is specifically to burn trash to reduce it to ash (the remainder going into the atmosphere). I guess the word sounds more scary and sinister than the actual accurate terms for energy combustion: “boiler” or “gasifier.”

    But, dear reader, consider, why the need to mislead you with inaccurate and loaded language? hmmm….

    * His energy prescription is conservation, wind and solar. He has no workable options to recommend for baseload electrical generation. Given his evident fear of fire, what would he recommend for baseload power generation?

    * This is a humdinger: “Unfortunately carbon sequestration takes decades to centuries to fully rebind the carbon released by burning.”

    Centuries? Really? What is his real point here? Does “fully rebind” mean that the carbon captured is not “bound” until the tree is deep in the ground? That’s news? The idea is that the biomass carbon is NOT from the ancient reserves of carbon in fossil fuels. It’s recent carbon and recycled, so long as biomass is replanted. A carbon loop. More from the roots, etc, remain in the soil.

    * Nobody I know of is advocating replacing existing natural forest with “plantations.” Red herring alert.

    * More to comment on here, but life is too short.

    I do think for biomass development and expansion we need to expand sustainable biomass production. We need to protect natural forests, native stands, and the like from biomass harvesting (or “rustling” if prices rise too high).

    But we also need a responsible debate.

  10. @Andy Olsen – I submit the following to clarify the position of the American Lung Association’s position on the Incineration of Biomass for energy…

    “The legislation should promote clean renewable electricity, including wind, solar and geothermal. The Lung Association urges that the legislation not promote the combustion of biomass. Burning biomass could lead to significant increases in emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and sulfur dioxide and have severe impacts on the health of children, older adults, and people with lung diseases.”

    The American Lung Association is very clear on their position which opposes Biomass combustion for creation of so called “clean energy”. While the press release you refer to did not specifically state that position, the quote above certainly does – it came from a letter from the ALA which was sent to Reps Henry Waxman and Edward Markey re American Clean Energy and Security-Act. The letter is available here for all to see…

    Mr. Olsen, I think it is time for you to apologize to George and the readers of this site for your attempts at character assassination and your mischaracterization of the facts.

    I too desire a responsible debate – maybe you can shed light on why you support Biomass plants that are being built across the nation, with billions of taxpayer dollars that we borrow from the Chinese and hand over to foreign multinational investor conglomerates who propose these facilities to create energy that does not benefit local communities who have and would suffer from the air pollution (Gadsden County, FL – power sold to the grid). Additionally, in places like Gainesville, Florida ratepayers are shafted by their governments, who enter into long term contracts with foreign corporations (American Renewables – has a nice patriotic ring to it doesn’t it….). These contracts are hidden from public scrutiny, and the details remain confidential. Rate protection from the Florida Public Service Commission is a thing of the past, as they have no jurisdiction over a utility that is owned and operated through a joint venture with a municipality – it is not an IOU – investor owned utility.

    I could go on…but that should give you a few things to ponder….