Burning Biomass to Generate Energy Is a Dirty Business

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), July 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

Burning Biomass to Generate Energy Is a Dirty Business


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Lisa Arkin

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed that biomass incinerators be required to report greenhouse gas emissions when the government starts regulating carbon next year. Under the Clean Air Act, carbon pollution from biomass will be regulated just like carbon pollution from oil or coal-fired power plants. The EPA made the right decision, based on the evidence that burning trees to meet our nation's voracious energy appetite may disrupt the balance of the carbon cycle. Greenhouse gas reporting will expose the heavy carbon burden of burning wood to make energy.

Oddly, the July 13 Register-Guard editorial "Biomass and carbon" faults the EPA for its decision to monitor pollution from biomass plants, ignoring recently published data that disproves the old assumption that biomass is clean, green and carbon-neutral.

The EPA isn't the only agency casting doubts on the wisdom of burning biomass for energy; the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources commissioned a study, published in June, to determine the atmospheric implications of burning trees and woody debris to generate electricity. Authors of the Massachusetts Manomet Study concluded that burning forest biomass creates a "carbon debt," which occurs when we outpace the Earth's ability to absorb carbon dioxide.

Trees are part of a dynamic carbon cycle that maintains balance in the Earth's atmospheric gases. The carbon debt increases as trees are removed from forests because their ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere is diminished, and the carbon naturally stored in their woody tissue is prematurely released by burning them in a biomass boiler.

Nonetheless, Register-Guard editors made the statement that Seneca Sawmill Co. would never "log its forests to fuel its power plant."

This is wishful thinking, and it is naive. During a May 15 meeting last year convened by Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy, a Seneca official told government and community representatives that Seneca considered logging for fuel a viable strategy.

When asked if the company would make a commitment not to log for fuel, the Seneca official replied, "No, we can't. We are a business. We don't know what the future will bring."

The EPA and Massachusetts are trying to predict what the future will bring. This is called stewardship. The Manomet study predicts that as fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive, demands for biomass will rise to the point where total harvest levels will approach total amount of wood grown each year. …

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