Risible RISI: Why the Biomass Industry’s Carbon Arguments Should Make You Spit Out Your Coffee

Recently, Senate friends of industrial bioenergy proposed – and passed – an amendment to the Senate version of the Murkowski Energy Bill that compels EPA to treat burning biomass as “carbon neutral.”

Bioenergy isn’t carbon neutral, of course, at least not in any timeframe we care about for addressing climate change. Wood-burning power plants emit more CO2 than coal plants, per megawatt-hour, and re-growing trees to resequester that carbon takes decades.  Even when the wood fuel comes from “waste,” the emissions from burning it exceed those from coal.

Editorial Boards at both the New York Times and the Washington Post have recognized the danger of forcing EPA to treat biomass as carbon neutral.  The stakes are high: nothing less than the ability of the Clean Power Plan to actually reduce emissions, rather than just reducing them on paper. The stakes are high for the biomass industry, too – because they see a potential market worth hundreds of millions for replacing coal with wood in the US, just as is occurring in Europe (with American forests paying the price).

Naturally the biomass industry doesn’t want major papers editorializing on the lunacy of treating forest burning as having zero emissions, so they’ve cranked up their propaganda machine.  Recently RISI, the wood industry tracking company, issued a response to the NY Times editorial that contained the following howler, the ultimate expression of the bioenergy Carbon Ponzi Scheme:

“Let’s take a hypothetical example where a tree is cut down to be used for energy. Sure, it may take 20, 30, 40, or even 100 years for another tree of equivalent size to grow in its place and sequester the carbon released by burning that tree. However, as you increase the scale of your analysis from a simple, single tree to a plot of timber and further to the landscape level, the time it takes for the forest to re-sequester the carbon released decreases dramatically. At the landscape scale, provided you have the important prerequisite of sustainable forest management, where the total volume of tree growth exceeds the total harvest, the carbon released from burning that wood is essentially sequestered instantaneously.”

Sounds kind of magical, right?

In fact if you believe this, you’re being played. The RISI piece acts like forests suddenly start sequestering carbon only when other forests have been cut down and burned.  It ignores the fact that existing forests are already taking carbon out of the atmosphere at the maximum possible rate (because if forests could do more, carbon wouldn’t be accumulating in the atmosphere), and nothing about cutting and burning forests over HERE makes forests over THERE take up carbon any faster.  If you’ve created an additional source of emissions, you need additional forest growth to take up those emissions – but the RISI piece doesn’t admit this.

We’ve used a banking analogy before to point out why the biomass industry is taking people for a ride with this argument.  Here we translate the RISI piece to show why the RISI approach is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme for carbon:

“Let’s take a hypothetical example where a bank account is spent down to be used for buying a new car.  Sure, it may take 20, 30, 40, or even 100 years for interest of equivalent value to accumulate and rebuild the account. However, as you increase the scale of your analysis from a simple, single bank account to a bank branch and further to the whole company, the time it takes for the interest to accumulate the value withdrawn decreases dramatically. At the company scale, provided you have the important prerequisite of sustainable bank management, where the total amount of interest growth exceeds the total amount withdrawn, the money spent on buying that car is essentially accumulated instantaneously.”

And if you still don’t get it, imagine it’s your bank interest being skimmed to rebuild the account of the reckless person who bought the car.

The RISI argument is risible. And by advancing it, the biomass industry is both signaling its desperation, and their contempt for your intelligence.  Meanwhile, the atmosphere keeps warming… and we keep losing forests in the name of “carbon neutral” bioenergy.

Partnership for Policy Integrity