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Burn Up the Biosphere and Call It Renewable Energy: The New Taxpayer Bailout That Will Make You Sick AND Poor

Just when you thought the biofuels bad dream was about over along comes the nightmare of "biomass."

Rachel Smolker

Last week President Obama announced his plans to ensure that the mandate for biofuels, 36 billion gallons by 2022, voted into law in the Energy Independence and Security Act in 2007, is met, and to provide huge new supports through the USDA for the cutting, harvesting and transport of biomass (aka forests, plants) to be delivered to incinerators and burned as "renewable" electricity and heat. 

The transportation biofuel mandate was adopted without clear consideration of the impacts of production on food, public health, direct and indirect land use, greenhouse gas emissions, soils, water or biodiversity. Since being passed into law, the critique of biofuels, particularly corn ethanol, has only grown deeper and more damning. Cellulosic fuels, not much available yet, will, according to mythology, avert these concerns because they are made from the inedible parts of plants. True, we do not eat forests, but creating huge new demands for wood is a recipe for disaster.

Lucky, technological hurdles have slowed the development of cellulosic fuels, but no such hurdles lie in the way of burning biomass for electricity and heat. Across the country, communities are being offered "green jobs" cutting, hauling and chipping their forests to feed the gaping maws of a new generation of "green energy" utilities being constructed or retrofitted in their neighborhoods. At least 200 new burners are proposed around the country. Further, many facilities that burn coal are seeking to co-fire biomass under the assumption that burning trees is a step up from burning coal. It's not. 

To fully appreciate the magnitude of this race to burn up the biosphere, consider the scale - each demands on the order of 13 thousand tons of wood per year, delivered by a stream of diesel-fueled trucks, to produce one megawatt of electricity. According to the Energy Information Agency, in 2007 The U.S. produced 4348856 GWh of electricity. If we were to produce 10% of our electricity with biomass, my back of the envelope calculation suggests we would need about 760 million tons of wood. At a moderate harvest rate (20 tons per acre), that would mean cutting an area approximately the size of Florida each year. The impacts on air quality and human health from burning it would be staggering. 

States like Massachussetts, where the community resistance has brought these figures to light, are facing 5 proposed new facilities which combined would produce 135-200 MW, an increase of a mere 1.3% in generating capacity for the state. This would require over 2 million tons of wood -- requiring cutting over the entire 844 thousand acres of public and private forest land in the state within 6 years. Similar outrageous proposals are on the table in virtually every state in the nation.

These demands are on a collision course with fast rising new industries producing pellets and chips for export, especially to the EU, where even larger biomass burners are being constructed, (120- 300 Megawatts), requiring millions of tons per year, largely imported!


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It gets worse: there is a direct connection with the recent news that Arborgen is seeking to test genetically engineered eucalyptus in the U.S. (see NYT Jan 29)  The greater the demand for biomass, the greater the likelihood that GE trees will gain a toehold and native forests will give way to industrial plantations of GE trees. 

In communities where biomass burners are being proposed, often poor and hard pressed for job opportunities, citizens are waking to the realities: First of all, the promised "green jobs" are not as numerous or as lucrative as hoped. Further, the emissions from biomass burning are making it increasingly difficult to breathe! A number of medical professionals and associations have opposed biomass burning, pointing out that it results in large quantities of particulate matter, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dioxin. For some contaminants, biomass emits more than coal. Biomass is often loosely defined to include not just wood, but also garbage, construction debris, tires, manure and much much more --  all of which contribute further to the stew of airborne (and ash-borne) toxins from incineration. Community organizers are not standing by idly. This week in Scotsburg Indiana, over 800 angry citizens crammed a meeting of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to voice opposition to the incinerator proposed by "Liberty Green". In Gretna Florida, a standing room only crowd showed up to oppose an ADAGE proposed incinerator -- the county commission had earlier voted to remove cameras from the meeting hall after their meeting was "disrupted" by angry citizens. In Massachussetts citizens have pulled together a town wide election to overturn the town board's vote to sell wastewater to cool the turbines of a biomass incinerator. In Michigan, a newly formed community group is rapidly pulling together to oppose several new biomass burners proposed for the state. People are not stupid.    

We have been sold this entire "burning biomass as renewable energy" bill of goods on the assumption that burning wood (or other) is a step up from burning coal or other fossil fuels. The argument is that trees grow back (which is true, but ignores the consequences of  soils becoming depleted, compacted and eroded). When they grow back, in theory they reabsorb the same amount of CO2 released when they were burned. Unfortunately, this argument is flat out wrong, as recently detailed in an article published in Science entitled "Fixing A Critical Climate Accounting Error." The greenhouse gas emissions associated with cutting forest are considerable (which is why climate negotiations have spent massive time debating mechanisms for "reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, or REDD). Those emissions can be counted at the cut, harvest and haul stage, or they can be measured at the smoke stack. But they must be counted because they do in fact exist!  Unfortunately, under current policies, in renewable energy "lore", these emissions are ignored on all fronts and the "myth of carbon neutrality" is perpetuated. Based on figures from the Department of Energy, if the U.S. adopts a 20% renewable portfolio standard, by 2020 over 11% of our emissions would come from biomass burning, all uncounted, magically invisible and mistakenly rewarded.

Right now, virtually every policy intended to support renewable energy, here and around the globe, is resulting in massive new funding, subsidies and mandates to cut and burn more forests. In Europe, about two-thirds of "renewable energy" is from biomass burning, accounting for nearly 80% of growth in renewables from 1990-2005. In the U.S. more than twice as much "renewable energy" is produced from biomass as from wind and solar combined. In sum, when we support the development of renewable energy, we are mostly supporting the burning of the biosphere.

When Barack Obama tells us he wants to provide further supports for renewable energy, rather than blindly cheering, we should take to the streets screaming in outrage!  Our tax dollars, via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act are being used to pay up to 30% of capital costs for building biomass burners -- a great deal for the industry that could cost us up to about 8 billion.  An additional 450-850 million similarly goes to support biomass burning via the USDA "Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which will pay growers, cutters and harvesters for providing the massive quantities of biomass. A production tax credit -- nearly a billion per year is up for reauthorization -- and this is just the tip of the subsidy iceberg. In sum, we are footing the bill with close to 10 billion per year of our tax dollars, to have our forests and farmlands pillaged and our health compromised under the guise of "renewable energy". Time to rethink the meaning of "renewable," and fast before every last scrap of living plant matter on earth goes up in smoke.

Deeply ironic is the fact that as this disaster is unfolding, separate channels are developing policies and incentives for marketing forest and agricultural lands carbon sequestration as part of the  scheme for "offsets". The Peterson amendment to the American Clean Energy and Security Act is case in point -- over 2 billion tons of carbon offsets -- almost entirely from forests and farms. This is called "having your cake and eating it too". If we want to enjoy the benefits of carbon sequestering ecosystems, (but hopefully not as an excuse for ongoing pollution as offsets do!), then we cannot also rely on those forests and farms to provide every twig and leaf and branch and scrap of "residue" to fuel a faux-green "bioeceonomy". Time for a reality check: what is nature for, anyway?

Rachel Smolker is codirector of Biofuelwatch, and an organizer with Climate SOS. She has a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology from the University of Michigan and worked as a field biologist before turning to activism. She is the daughter of Environmental Defense Fund cofounder, Robert Smolker, and she engaged in direct action at EDF offices to oppose their advocacy for carbon trade. She has written on the topic of bioenergy, carbon trade and climate justice. She was arrested protesting outside the Chicago Climate Exchange in November as part of the Mobilization for Climate Justice day of actions, which she wrote about for

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