The Truly Green Path Forward in 2019

Updated January 10, 2019

The idea of a Green New Deal is generating a lot of excitement. Championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and embraced by the Sunrise Movement along with hundreds of environmental, labor, and social justice groups, the Green New Deal promises to tackle climate change by transforming the U.S. to a low-carbon economy, creating new jobs and addressing income inequality.

PFPI has endorsed the Green New Deal and is working to make sure that the plan embraces protecting and restoring forests for carbon sequestration, rather than logging them for biomass energy. We have company: today (Jan 10), PFPI and more than 600 groups sent a letter to Congress urging “visionary and affirmative” climate action, including insuring that “any definition of renewable energy must also exclude all combustion-based power generation, nuclear, biomass energy, large scale hydro and waste-to-energy technologies.”

Climate scientists tell us that protecting and restoring natural forests, greening our cities, and investing in truly zero-emissions energy technologies is the best way to reduce emissions – and it also happens to be the best way to create jobs. PFPI’s  recommendations to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez are below. (You can download the letter here).

December 11, 2018

Re: Bioenergy in the Green New Deal

Dear Representative-elect Ocasio-Cortez,

Heartfelt congratulations on your election, and thank you for your early and brilliant leadership in making climate change a priority for the incoming Democratic majority in the House. We strongly support developing a bold and comprehensive plan to address climate change, one that puts Americans to work in pursuing real solutions to decarbonize the economy.

We understand many details remain to be worked out in the “Green New Deal” agenda and want to alert you to a particularly fraught area of renewable energy policy, biomass energy – particularly the combustion of solid biomass for electricity generation (including the use of biomass energy plus carbon capture and storage, “BECCS,” as a means of reducing emissions).

Most new biomass energy worldwide is fueled with wood, with the perverse outcome that forests are actually being harvested for fuel. The climate and forest impacts of forest bioenergy are increasingly controversial worldwide; more than 130 international groups have so far signed the position statement below opposing biomass energy expansion, including major groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the Earth USA, Greenpeace International, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Sierra Club.

Reflecting the understanding of these groups, and drawing on our own extensive investigations into the biomass energy industry, we advise that in your work on the Green New Deal, you:

1) Reject biomass and other solid-fuel combustion-based energy sources as renewable energy.

Biomass power plants (and other “renewable” solid fuel combustors like garbage incinerators) are dirty, inefficient, and expensive. They emit more carbon pollution per megawatt-hour than coal plants, as well as massive quantities of other air pollutants and ash.[i]  Inevitably, it is low-income communities and communities of color that suffer the impacts of these power plants. Biomass energy has been treated as “carbon neutral” in policy, but the science shows that net carbon emissions from wood-burning power plants exceed those from fossil-fueled plants for decades, well past the point when the IPCC says we need emissions to shrink to almost nothing.[ii]  In recognition of this science, the State of Massachusetts actually eliminated renewable energy subsidies for low-efficiency biomass power plants,[iii] but bioenergy continues to compete with zero-emissions renewables for subsidies in other states.

Defying the science on the climate impacts of cutting and burning forests, the biomass energy industry has persuaded Congress to adopt annual budget riders legislating forest bioenergy as having zero emissions, a policy that was enthusiastically embraced by the Pruitt EPA.[iv]  But watch what has been happening due to the false classification of bioenergy as “carbon neutral” renewable energy overseas: US and Canadian forests are being clear-cut at alarming rates to supply sharply rising demand for wood pellet fuels in Europe and Asia.[v] Climate science shows we need to dramatically expand forests, not cut and burn them for energy, and any similar expansion of biomass energy in the US would further undermine the benefits of increased deployment of zero-emissions energy.

2) Promote natural climate solutions to draw down and capture greenhouse gases.

Avoiding dangerous temperature rise requires both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon uptake from the atmosphere.  Importantly, the recent IPCC report includes a green pathway toward carbon sequestration that largely depends on reforestation and protection of standing forests.[vi] This approach should be initiated immediately — we must not defer action by relying on hypothetical future deployment of unproven, unscalable, and environmentally risky biomass energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). A recent study by The Nature Conservancy found that the “natural climate solution” of restoring and expanding forests had the potential to increase carbon storage and avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 21% of current net annual emissions in the US.[vii]  These are real solutions that can be deployed immediately, creating tremendous green new jobs potential on the scale of the Civilian Conservation Corps , which was one of the most popular programs of the original New Deal.

The biomass industry has been on the ropes in the US, and no doubt you and your team will be told that increasing bioenergy deployment will create many new jobs. Don’t believe the hype. Many of these are not really green jobs, because wood-burning power plants contribute to forest clearing, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and increased air pollution. Furthermore, bioenergy is a risky investment. PFPI just completed a report[viii] on the 25 biomass plants in the US that got $10 million or more in federal Stimulus funding starting in 2009 and found that many depended on expensive power purchase agreements or additional bailouts, but still couldn’t compete. In addition to early closures, several plants had fires, several rendered neighborhoods unlivable due to odor, dust and noise, and 17 (68%) had Clean Water Act or Clean Air Act violations. This is an expensive, polluting industry that belches CO2 and makes climate change worse. It should have no place in a Green New Deal.

We would welcome the opportunity to share additional information with you and your advisors regarding these issues, and you can find more materials on PFPI’s website at www.pfpi.net.

Thank you for your work. We are all behind you.

Mary S. Booth, PhD
Director, Partnership for Policy Integrity

Click here for PDF of letter to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez

Link to the Biomass Delusion position statement signed by more than 130 international groups.

 

 

[i] Booth, M. 2014. Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal. Partnership for Policy Integrity, Pelham, MA. At http://www.pfpi.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/PFPI-Biomass-is-the-New-Coal-April-2-2014.pdf

[ii] Some examples of papers highlighting the high intensity and long duration of biomass energy net carbon impacts: Booth, Mary S. 2018. Not Carbon Neutral:  Assessing the Net Emissions Impact of Residues Burned for Bioenergy.  Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13, No. 3; Domke, G. M., et al (2012). “Carbon emissions associated with the procurement and utilization of forest harvest residues for energy, northern Minnesota, USA.” Biomass and Bioenergy 36: 141-150;   Laganière, J., et al (2017). “Range and uncertainties in estimating delays in greenhouse gas mitigation potential of forest bioenergy sourced from Canadian forests.” GCB Bioenergy 9(2): 358-369;   Mitchell, S., et al. 2012. Carbon debt and carbon sequestration parity in forest bioenergy production. GCB Bioenergy (2012) doi:10.1111/j.1757-1707.2012.01173.x

[iii] Massachusetts Cuts Renewable Energy Subsidies for Biomass Power. August 17, 2012. Partnership for Policy Integrity, Pelham, MA. At http://www.pfpi.net/massachusetts-cuts-renewable-energy-subsidies-for-biomass-power

[iv] EPA’s new policy declaring biomass from “managed forests” to be carbon neutral is at https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-04/documents/biomass_policy_statement_2018_04_23.pdf

[v] See https://www.dogwoodalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/NRDC_2014-2017Booklet_DigitalVersion-resize.pdf for photos and documentation of how the pellet industry is clearcutting oldgrowth hardwood forests in the US Southeast.

[vi] Partnership for Policy Integrity. The IPCC’s Recipe for a Livable Planet: Grow Trees, Don’t Burn Them. October 7, 2018. Pelham, MA. At http://www.pfpi.net/the-ipccs-recipe-for-a-livable-planet-grow-trees-dont-burn-them

[vii] Fargione, J. E., et al. 2018. Natural Climate Solutions for the United States. Science Advances, vol. 4, no. 11. At http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/4/11/eaat1869 (open access)

[viii] Booth, M. and Leuenberger, B. 2018. The Bioenergy Boom From the Federal Stimulus: Outcomes and Lessons. Partnership for Policy Integrity, Pelham, MA. At http://www.pfpi.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/PFPI-Bioenergy-and-the-Stimulus-Oct-24.pdf

Partnership for Policy Integrity