The Senate passed a massive 800-page bipartisan energy bill that defines wood harvested from forests as “renewable energy” and orders federal bureaucrats to promote this green energy source.
This small provision of the bill, which passed Wednesday, angered The Washington Post editorial board. The Post’s editors said Thursday “[t]his is a rank example of Congress legislating science rather than allowing agency experts to make determinations based on facts, and the results could be very bad for the environment.”
The Senate’s “Energy Policy Modernization Act” asks the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to craft policy that “recognizes the full benefits of the use of forest biomass for energy, conservation, and responsible forest management.”
Basically, the Senate wants the EPA and USDA to craft policies that support cutting down forest trees to be burned for electricity under the premise it’s “carbon-neutral.”
The bill asks that federal regulations “reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy and recognize biomass as a renewable energy source, provided the use of forest biomass for energy production does not cause conversion of forests to non-forest use.”
Using wood biomass to generate electricity is nothing new. U.S. foresters have been cutting down forest trees for years to supply fuel for Europe’s power plants. Europe considers wood biomass as “carbon-neutral” and it’s largely replaced coal power in Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands.
“In 2014, almost three-quarters of all U.S. wood pellet exports were delivered to the United Kingdom (UK), mainly for the purpose of generating electricity,” according to the Energy Information Administration.
Europe’s green laws force utilities to use “carbon-neutral” fuels to lower carbon dioxide emissions, and many turned to wood pellets imported from the U.S. as a cheap alternative to coal, wind and solar.
“Overall, U.S. wood pellet exports increased by nearly 40% between 2013 and 2014, from 3.2 million short tons in to 4.4 million short tons, as the United States continues to be the largest wood pellet exporter in the world,” according to EIA.
Cheap fuel is good, but if your goal is to actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions, wood isn’t exactly the way to go. Wood is only considered “carbon-neutral” because growing trees sequester carbon dioxide, which is blamed for global warming.
So, the logic goes, foresters can cut down trees, which releases CO2, and then replant them to sequester an equivalent or higher amount of greenhouse gas. But that’s only what happens in theory.
“Burning wood produces carbon dioxide emissions; the case for treating biomass energy as carbon-neutral is that, as plants grow back, they recapture carbon dioxide from the air,” according to The Washington Post’s editorial board. “Yet burning biomass releases a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere all at once, and plant regrowth takes time.”
In theory, the carbon cycle should balance out, according to proponents of wood biomass, but that’s not always the case.
“Moreover, trees will continue growing, sequestering carbon dioxide all along, if they are not harvested for energy, which calls into question the net carbon benefits of chopping them down and growing new ones.,” The Post’s board wrote. “Using wood for electricity also means that other industries, such as paper, might have to get their raw materials from other places, which could end up increasing deforestation.”
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