Can Burning Forests To Power The Grid Be Carbon Neutral? The Senate Just Said ‘Yes’


When the first major update to the nation’s energy laws in nearly a decade began last week in the Senate, environmentalists were cautiously sympathetic to it. The bill didn’t open new land for oil and gas drilling, coal was mostly ignored and the Obama administration’s recent climate change policies were left unscathed.

But environmentalists around the country are now incensed over an approved amendment categorizing bioenergy as carbon neutral — a move that groups say puts forests and even portions of the Clean Power Plan at risk.

“I think it’s a very dangerous amendment,” said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with ThinkProgress. “It tries to dictate that burning forests for energy won’t affect the climate, that’s what the term carbon neutral is supposed to mean and that’s just not true. You can’t legislate away basic physics.”

Bioenergy is energy contained in living or recently living organisms. Plants get bioenergy through photosynthesis, and animals get it by eating plants. To use the energy found in biomass, humans have mostly turned to burning trees in a process that, like coal burning, releases the harmful carbon pollution that causes global warming.


In part, the renewable nature of plants and their capacity to sequester carbon has meant that the industry, governmental agencies, and environmentalists have been at odds over this energy’s presumed carbon neutrality. What’s more, whether biomass is considered carbon neutral depends on many factors, including the definition of carbon neutrality, feedstock type, the type of technology used, and time frame examined.

The issue has been so contentious that for years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on developing rules to properly quantify biomass carbon emissions from power plants using this energy source. A decision is reportedly expected later this year.

Environmentalists say the amendment sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) interferes with the EPA’s efforts, as it explicitly tells agencies to adopt policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of forests’ bioenergy. They also argue that it may incentivize cutting forests for energy and most importantly, undo important provisions of the Clean Power Plan that call for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector through increased use of renewable sources.

If the energy bill passes, “I would expect to see a number of states that have forest resources and a lot of coal-fired power plants trying to replace coal with wood in order to comply with the EPA’s regulations,” said Bundy. “It undermines the integrity of everything we are trying to do on climate.”

That’s because wood biomass has limited energy generation capacity when compared with other sources, including coal, but unlike coal, the industry can say there is way to offset CO2 emissions by planting trees. “Yeah, trees grow back and young trees take up carbon eventually, but that doesn’t’ happen overnight. Plus you have to cut a heck of a lot of trees to get wood to do anything meaningful because it’s a low-density fuel,” said Mary Booth, director of the Partnership for Policy Integrity, in an interview with ThinkProgress.


The timber industry, meanwhile, has been pushing hard for this type of legislation. It even filed a lawsuit against the EPA late last year over how the agency dealt with biomass in the Clean Power Plan. “The Clean Power Plan does not put biomass on a level playing field with other renewable energy sources,” said Donna Harman, president and chief executive officer of the American Forest & Paper Association, in a December statement. “This litigation will assure that EPA does not improperly constrain states’ ability to take advantage of the important role biomass energy can plan in addressing climate change.”

While some environmentalists don’t dispute that bioenergy can be carbon neutral if properly quantified and managed, others note that the evidence of improperly using this resource through ill-designed regulation is clear and recent.

“We know what can happen when you count biomass as completely carbon neutral, because in the past several years we have seen a similar error in European policy that has driven massive clear-cuts of precious forests in the southern U.S.,” said Adam Macon, campaign director at the Dogwood Alliance.

Indeed, media reports found that when European nations called biomass carbon neutral, industries there started importing the wood pellet fuel extracted from United States forests, as well as from the rest of the Americas that often lack strict environmental laws. Recent research has also found that planting more trees doesn’t necessary help human efforts to slow rising temperatures.

For their part, the industry says that biomass from wood provides incentives for landowners to plant more tress. “Healthy markets have contributed to a 50 percent increase in volume of trees since the 1950s, which help offset 15 percent of U.S. carbon emissions annually,” said Gretchen Schaefer, spokeswoman for the National Alliance of Forest Owners, to the Washington Post.

But many environmentalists are unmoved as they see this amendment as a major setback for clean energy policies. “We should be embracing a clean energy transition from fossil fuels that actually protect forests and communities’ health, rather than incentivizing their degradation,” Macon said.


Not long ago the Obama Administration, too, questioned defining bioenergy as carbon neutral. In a letter last summer, the White House said “this language stands in contradiction to a wide-ranging consensus on policies and best available science from EPA’s own independent Science Advisory Board.”