The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is aiding and abetting a massive cover-up of good science regarding biomass – the term for tree and plant matter used for energy. In January, the Agency gave the biomass industry three more years to avoid keeping track of their carbon pollution. The EPA is essentially covering up the fact that biomass emits harmful greenhouse gases when it is burned and can worsen the threat of climate change if those emissions are left unchecked and unbalanced.
EPA is perpetuating the myth that all biomass burning is “carbon neutral,” because the trees that are burned for energy are re-grown – and the carbon released is re-absorbed by the new trees. While in the short run it protects biomass burning as a “renewable energy” source in the same category as wind or solar, in the long run this is a flimsy cover-up that is preventing biomass from establishing itself on a long-term sustainable basis.
This myth doesn’t do the biomass industry any favors in the long run though. If the biomass industry ever wants to grow into a mature and sustainable renewable domestic energy source, it needs to stop hiding behind the security blanket of “carbon neutrality.”
Meanwhile, EPA looks foolish as it tries to justify unscientific generalities on behalf of the industry. Take, for example, EPA’s “Clean Energy Air Emissions” webpage. It begins by noting that power plants emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and man-made carbon dioxide – emissions that “can lead to smog, acid rain, and haze. In addition, these power plant emissions increase the risk of climate change.” Yet, when it discusses emissions from biomass power plants, the man-made emission of carbon dioxide has suddenly become harmless --“considered to be part of the natural carbon cycle of the earth.” What is “natural” about interrupting the natural carbon cycle by cutting down a tree and burning it? It can take centuries to absorb as much carbon dioxide back into replacement trees as is released by logging and burning existing trees.
Recently the biomass industry embarked on a campaign to eliminate environmental safeguards in order to make more biomass eligible for taxpayer subsidies. The industry is claiming that there is hundreds of millions of tons of potential new biomass sources – but conveniently ignoring the threats to water and air quality, soil erosion, and wildlife habitat that such production would pose.
It’s time for EPA to stop abetting this process. Biomass is certainly not like dirty fossil-fuel emitters – such as coal or natural gas – but neither is it a clean energy source like wind and solar. Biomass energy involves combustion, and if the source is live trees instead of real waste, it can worsen our carbon emissions problem for decades even if those emissions are eventually absorbed by new tree growth.
Biomass used correctly can be a part of the solution to the climate crisis and contribute to energy security. However, if pursued without environmental protections, biomass energy projects can harm ecosystems and ultimately increase, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions. EPA should stop deferring the consequences of following good science. Let good biomass projects go forward, but stop subsidizing the ones that will make our environmental and climate problems worse.