Scientists Sound Biomass Alarm; Is Copenhagen Listening?

Monday, 14 December 2009 08:37 By Joshua Frank, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Scientists Sound Biomass Alarm; Is Copenhagen Listening?
This biomass site in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota, uses yard and lumber waste to create energy. (Photo: Andrew Ciscel / Flickr)

Current climate legislation and the Kyoto Protocol are undermining the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Or so contends a cautionary article that appeared in October's peer-reviewed journal of Science.

The authors, led by Timothy D. Searchinger of Princeton University, wrote in their essay, "Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error," that these climate agreements do not account for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from biomass in their overall estimates.

CO2 is considered the number one contributor to anthropogenic climate change.

As a result, the accounting in these statutes treats all biomass energy as carbon neutral despite its source. Biomass is a product of wood debris or other living or recently living plants.

The notion in some pro-biomass circles is that biomass is a renewable resource. As plants grow, they absorb carbon and when it is burned it converts the plant's carbon back into atmospheric CO2. The result, as interpreted by the Kyoto Protocol, is that burning biomass must then be carbon neutral.

Not necessarily, argues Searchinger and his colleagues, which includes researchers from Duke University, Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Michigan State University, among others. Their discontent relies heavily on the fact that our forests act as carbon sinks, or areas of land that store excessive CO2 and other sediments. Without carbon sinks, the effects of global warming could be exacerbated immensely.

However, biomass proponents believe wood from forests can be sustainably harvested. The United States Forest Service, for example, reports that our public lands hold upwards of 380 million tons of wood that can be cut down for biomass production.

"[Harvesting] existing forests for electricity adds net carbon to the air. That remains true even if limited harvest rates leave the carbon stocks of regrowing forests unchanged, because those stocks would otherwise increase and contribute to the terrestrial carbon sink," wrote the authors in Science. "If bioenergy crops displace forest or grassland, the carbon released from soils and vegetation, plus lost future sequestration, generates carbon debt, which counts against the carbon the crops absorb."

If true, then the method of calculating CO2 in the world's landmark climate agreement is inherently flawed. Such errors, if continued, may also greatly hinder whatever accord comes out of the ongoing climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Their prognosis also sticks a nail deep in the heart of cap-and-trade boosters, where offsets are to be allocated to companies that reduce their CO2 outputs. Such methods of reducing carbon emissions, if biomass were included, would greatly reduce their alleged effectiveness.

Many states, such as California, already exempt biomass from their proposed cap-and-trade policies. In Nevada and elsewhere, power plants (typically former coal-fired facilities) can actually burn coal and even trash along with biomass and still receive energy credits.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act, better known as the Waxman-Markey climate bill, also includes biomass alongside solar, wind and geothermal as a renewable energy resource. As such, power companies that use biomass technology would be eligible for offset credits if the legislation goes into effect.

The Obama administration, which supports the Waxman-Markey bill, doesn't agree with Searchinger and others in the scientific community and nor does the Department of Energy (DOE).

On December 8, the DOE awarded Archer Daniel Midland (ADM) $24.8 million to help the company construct a biomass plant in Decatur, Illinois. In all, the feds will be dishing out $564 million in stimulus dollars to construct biomass plants in 15 states across the country. The facilities will produce biofuels from biomass. Wood from national forests will likely be central to the equation, which in effect will reduce our forests' potential to absorb CO2.

"Advanced biofuels are critical to building a cleaner, more sustainable transportation system in the U.S.," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu after the ADM announcement. "These projects will help establish a domestic industry that will create jobs here at home and open new markets across rural America."

Nonetheless, it's not just this major calculation error in climate agreements or the loss of carbon sinks that has some people worried about the environmental impacts of biomass.

The Massachusetts Medical Society, made up of 20,000 students and physicians, also views the technology as a substantial threat to public health, and on December 9, the organization came out in opposition to three large-scale biomass facilities that are to be constructed in the state.

The proposed plants, if built, will burn wood from trees and construction debris, along with more energy dense substances like coal to produce electricity. The group argues that, as a result, more air pollution will affect the areas where they are operating. The plants are to be situated near schools and residential neighborhoods.

"Recent research and medical literature reviews provide graphic confirmation of the seriousness of the issue," said Jefferson Dickey, MD, an author of the Medical Society's policy. "The equation is simple: the more air pollution, the higher the mortality rate. Research has shown that lowering air pollution levels is associated with better health outcomes."

In fact, Massachusetts seems to be leading the fight to end biomass expansion. In early December, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources announced that it was going to suspend all biomass energy applications until it completed a study on the environmental and health impacts of biomass energy.

"[Biomass plants] are the Hummers of the combustion world, converting only 15 to 25 percent of the energy in the wood to electricity, as opposed to 45 percent for coal and 60 percent for natural gas," said Ellen Moyer, who holds a PhD in environmental engineering and is working to shut down biomass plants in Massachusetts.

"The 75 to 85 percent of the energy in the wood that they don't convert to electricity is released as heat, for a direct warming effect," she adds.

Not only that, Moyer contends, but the process of bringing biomass to the power plants requires a large amount of energy and, as a result, an immense increase in CO2 emissions.

"[Large] amounts of petroleum are used to cut, chip, and haul wood ... to haul ash, for incinerator startups and to construct the $200 million incinerators," said Moyers, who helped place a first of-its-kind measure on a Massachusetts ballot next November that would greatly limit CO2 output from biomass plants in the state. "Wood-burning power plants are the epitome of destruction and inefficiency."

As talks about how to handle global warming heat up, whether in Denmark or Washington, DC, some scientists are greatly concerned about the potential of certain types of biomass being lumped in with other renewable energy sources.

If biomass is continued to be counted as carbon neutral in cap-and-trade schemes, claim the authors of the Science article, then the economics that will surround these cap-and-trade models will favor huge, large-scale land conversion projects that could ultimately destroy some of the last remaining carbon sinks in the world - our forests.

Joshua Frank

Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (AK Press, 2008). Frank is also the co-author with St. Clair of the forthcoming Green Scare: The New War on Environmentalism (Haymarket Books, 2010)

Last modified on Monday, 14 December 2009 15:04