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The Senate Just Passed An Energy Bill That Would Make Forests A ‘Carbon Neutral’ Energy Source

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES KRUPA
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHARLES KRUPA

The first major update to the nation’s energy policy in eight years passed the Senate Wednesday with bipartisan support, as it concentrates on common ground topics like infrastructure improvements, cyber security, and energy efficiency. Yet an amendment in the bill — dubbed the Energy Policy Modernization Act — that would classify biomass as carbon neutral has angered dozens of environmental organizations, who say it puts forests at risk.

Environmentalists had for months questioned an amendment from senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) instructing agencies to develop policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality” of biomass, a source of energy that includes trees and other plants. On Tuesday, more than 75 organizations sent a letter to the bill co-sponsors, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), voicing their opposition to the bill because of its “dangerous” biomass provisions.

“This is a really horrible precedent,” said Friends of the Earth Climate and Energy Program Director Benjamin Schreiber, in an email to ThinkProgress. “What is next, will they pass a bill telling government scientists that they must deem coal carbon free?”

Bioenergy is energy contained in living or recently living organisms. Plants get bioenergy through photosynthesis, and animals get it through plants. To use biomass energy, humans have mostly turned to slashing forests and burning trees in a process that, like coal burning, releases harmful carbon pollution that causes global warming. However, the renewable nature of plants and their capacity to sequester carbon has motivated industry and some lawmakers to consider biomass a carbon neutral source of energy.

What is next, will they pass a bill telling government scientists that they must deem coal carbon free?

This presumed carbon neutrality of biomass has worried environmentalists for years because neutrality — though plausible — depends on many factors, including the definition of carbon neutrality, feedstock type, burning time frame, and the technology used. The issue has been so controversial that the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on rules to quantify biomass carbon emissions from power plants using this energy source. A decision is reportedly expected later this year.

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Environmentalists have long said the amendment interferes with the EPA’s efforts, as it tells agencies to create policies reflecting the carbon neutrality of bioenergy. They also argue that it incentivizes cutting forests for energy, and undoes provisions of the Clean Power Plan that call for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector through increased use of renewable sources.

But environmentalists oppose the energy bill on other provisions, too.

“While we applaud the efforts of Senators Murkowski and Cantwell, we ultimately oppose this bill in its current form because of serious policy flaws,” said Sierra Club Legislative Director Melinda Pierce, in a statement. The Sierra Club, the largest environmental group in the country, said the bill includes a number of “problematic provisions” like expedited approval of natural gas exports and increased investment in methane hydrate and nuclear technology. The bill also repeals a requirement to make all federal buildings fossil fuel free by 2030.

“At the end of the day, the balance of this bill favors the dirty and dangerous fossil fuels of the past at a time when we need to move full speed ahead towards an economy powered by clean, renewable energy,” Pierce said.

And while renewable energy organizations like the Solar Energy Industries Association have applauded the bill, groups like Friends of the Earth nonetheless said they will turn their attention to a presidential veto, if the bill is passed by Congress. It heads to the House next, where Senators and House members will work to reconcile differences between the Senate bill and the House’s version of the bill, which passed in December.

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“The biomass provisions in the Senate bill were not the only attack on public health and the environment,” Schreiber said. “Expediting approval of liquefied natural gas terminals will increase fracking and poison communities.”