Senate Legislation Cedes the US Forest Carbon Sink to the Biomass Industry – Even as Forests Are Already Declining

To keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees C, there is wide consensus that we need to not just reduce carbon emissions, but actually take carbon pollution that’s already in the atmosphere out.

The blue line charts the course that climate modeling shows is necessary for staying below a 2 degree C rise in temperature. Sabine Fuss et al, 2016. Betting on Negative Emissions. Nature Climate Change. 

Right now, the only way to take large amounts of carbon pollution out of the atmosphere is to protect and expand forests – as recognized in the Paris climate agreement, which states,

Parties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases… including forests.

Meanwhile, however, back home in the land of industry-crafted legislation, the US Senate is busy figuring out the best way to carve up the US forest carbon sink and give it away to the tree-burning industry.  That’s not hyperbole. The House Appropriations bill contains language promoted by the National Alliance of Forest Owners (NAFO) that would force EPA to treat bioenergy as having zero emissions as long as Forest Service data “show that forest carbon stocks in the U.S. are stable or increasing on a national scale, or when forest biomass is derived from mill residuals, harvest residuals or forest management activities.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee, meeting this week, will likely consider an alternate version of this language that contains the same fundamental flaw, but would do the carbon accounting on a regional level, rather than a national level.

Previously this spring, NAFO got bioenergy cheerleaders Senator Collins and King, along with three climate-change deniers and inexplicably, Senators Klobuchar and Franken, who we had supposed actually supported real action on climate change, to sponsor an amendment to the Energy Bill that would force EPA to treat biomass energy as having zero emissions – even though biomass power plants actually emit more carbon pollution than coal or gas plants. There’s nothing special about this carbon from burning trees – it warms the climate just like carbon from coal. The difference being that genererating electricity by burning trees emits more carbon pollution than coal, while simultaneously degrading the ability of the forest to take carbon out of the air (yes – trees grow back. But a plantation of tiny seedlings has nowhere near the carbon uptake capacity of the mature forests that are being harvested for fuel).

(See end of post for references).

Although the Energy Bill amendment has drawn a sharp rebuke from both the New York Times and the Washington Post , according to tree-burning proponents at NAFO, it didn’t go far enough.  Writing for the New Hampshire Timberland Owners Association, NAFO’s president Dave Tenny stated,

The Collins/King/Klobuchar amendment is a very positive step forward in our overall legislative strategy on carbon neutrality.  Our next step is to use the momentum gained from this amendment to proceed with the placement of more detailed language (similar to last year’s provisions) in the House and Senate Interior Appropriations Bills.

In other words, once NAFO got Senators used to voting on the notion that they can legislate away carbon pollution and force EPA to use bogus science, they were ready to roll out the big guns.  The “more detailed” language NAFO has inserted into the House and Senate Appropriations bills would legislate the idea that we can burn up the forest carbon sink – the new growth by forests that currently pulls more than 10 percent of our carbon pollution out of the atmosphere each year, converting it new forest growth – with zero consequences for the atmosphere.

Doubt that the plan is to harvest forests, and keep aging coal plants operating? See the biomass and wood pellet industry’s own words, where they announce their goal is to replace coal with wood.

Legislators should understand that US forests, and the carbon sink they provide, are already in trouble. We graphed US Forest Service data from 1996, 2007 and 2012 to analyze how forests are doing in states where Senators are about to make key decisions on whether to increase tree-burning in power plants.  We found that forests in many states are in decline.

New Mexico – Senator Tom Udall, home to ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that is considering NAFO’s tree-burning amendment.

The data show New Mexico’s forests are losing biomass, and growth rates have declined.

Vermont -Senator Patrick Leahy, Appropriations subcommittee.

Vermont’s forests are losing live tree biomass, and growth rates are declining.  This state is distinguished, however, by the fact that the Public Service Commission has recognized the excessive carbon pollution impacts of tree-burning power plants, and denied a Certificate of Public Good to a tree-burning plant that was recently proposed.

California – Senator Diane Feinstein, Appropriations subcommittee.

California’s forests are losing live tree biomass and growth rates are flattening out.

Washington -Senator Patty Murray (Appropriations ), and Maria Cantwell, ranking minority member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that is handling the Senate Energy bill.  Forests in Washington state are showing a surprising decline.

Tennessee -Senator Lamar Alexander, Appropriations subcommittee.

Senator Alexander is, as far as we can tell, one of the few Senators who has figured out that it takes tens of thousands of acres of forest to fuel a biomass power plant. Forests in Tennsessee appear to have stopped gaining biomass and may be in decline.

Kentucky -Senator Mitch McConnell, Appropriations subcommittee.

Kentucky’s forests appear to be increasing.  Under the “regional” approach for bioenergy carbon accounting, this growth could be skimmed off to make up for losses of forest growth elsewhere in the South.

Mississippi -Senator Thad Cochran, Appropriations subcommittee.

Mississippi’s forest biomass appears to have stopped increasing overall, even as growth rates increase.  However, breaking out the growth rate data into softwoods and hardwoods (following graphs) shows that net growth is primarily in plantation pines, and comes partially at the expense of native hardwood forests.

Missouri -Senator Roy Blunt, Appropriations subcommittee.

Forest Service data suggest biomass gain in Missouri’s forests has hit a plateau . Net growth rates are falling.

Montana –  Senator John Tester, Appropriations.

Montana’s forests have been hard-hit by drought and beetle infestations. These forests are losing biomass fast, and growth rates are crashing.

Minnesota -Senator Amy Klobuchar, a co-sponsor of the “Collins” amendment in the Energy Bill.

Minnesota’s forests are losing biomass and growth rates have dropped off abruptly. The state’s forests are less effective as carbon sinks than they were a few years ago.

Maine -Senators Susan Collins (Appropriations) and Angus King, co-sponsors of the Energy Bill biomass amendment and supporters of the Appropriations language approach (Senator King offered a stand-alone bill along the same lines last year.)

Maine’s forests lost biomass for years due to intensive harvesting. They’re recovering now, but the trend could reverse again if bioenergy harvesting increases.  The pellet industry wants a bigger foothold in Maine, so they can pelletize Main forests to ship to Europe.

New Hampshire -Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Appropriations.

New Hampshire’s forests were heavily harvested, leading to a loss in standing stocks. The recovery now has made the forest products industry bold, and New Hampshire has stated it will use wood as compliance for the Clean Power Plan.

Oregon – Senator Jeff Merkley, Appropriations subcommittee.

Growth rates in Oregon’s forests appear to have increased recently; but overall, forest biomass is starting to plateau.

Appropriations committee members should take the biomass language out of the Appropriations bill. They don’t have the right to allocate the forest carbon sink that millions of Americans count on, whether they know it or not, to mitigate climate change, to a favored industry that will literally burn it and send it into the atmosphere.  It makes no more sense to allocate that forest carbon sink to bioenergy, thus rendering it instantaneously “carbon neutral,” than it does to allocate it as an offset to coal plant emissions. We all know burning trees emits carbon, but this legislation would dictate that burning more trees does not increase carbon emissions. As ably highlighted by Drs. Harmon and Law of Oregon State University, the House and Senate langugage “legislatively defies the conservation of mass law, a key building block of science for over 250 years.”  Senators, recall your elementary school math.  Legislating tree-burning as zero emissions doesn’t make it so.


References for Power Plant Emissions figure

CO2 per MWh

a, b, c : from EIA at  Value for coal is for “all types.”  Different types of coal emit slightly more or less.

d:  Assumes HHV of 8,600 MMBtu/lb for bone dry wood (Biomass Energy Data Book v. 4; Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2011. and that wood is 50%  carbon.


a: DOE National Energy Technology Laboratory: Natural Gas Combined Cycle Plant F-Class (

b: International Energy Agency.  Power Generation from Coal: Measuring and Reporting Efficiency Performance and CO2 Emissions.

c. EIA data show the averaged efficiency for the U.S. coal fleet in 2013 was 32.6% (

d:  ORNL’s Biomass Energy Data Book  (; page 83) states that actual efficiencies for biomass steam turbines are “in the low 20’s”; PFPI’s review of a number of air permits for recently proposed biopower plants reveals a common assumption of 24% efficiency.



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