[GRRN] problems with biomass

Tue, 16 Nov 1999 21:19:25 EST

11/15/99 2:57 PM bpollock@town.ci.chapel-hill.nc.us

>Did I miss something, isn't biomass a renewable energy source with net zero
>carbon emissions? Provided that the biomass is harvested from properly
>managed woodlands (or other crop sources) why is it inherently
>problematic/unecological to consider it a renewable resource, thus OK for
>properly controlled combustion?


The problems with biomass are many. It is a widely held belief that
biomass is a "net zero carbon emissions" energy source. Well, that may
or may not be true, depending on how you evaluate the claim. but one
thing is certainly true: burning *anything* to produce energy puts carbon
into the atmosphere. So it is misleading to think of biomass as not
putting carbon into the atmosphere. It can be every bit as polluting as
fossil fuels. The argument is that since growing the feedstock
sequesters some carbon then it's ok to burn it. I disagree.

The only gain you get from sequestering carbon is if you *don't* burn it.
Therefore you lose everything you gained from growing the feedstock once
you cut it and burn it.

It gets worse. You say "provided that the biomass is harvested from
properly managed woodlands (or other crop sources)," etc. That is a big
assumption. The *reality* is that forests around the world increasingly
are being logged off in order to feed biomass burners. Who is making
sure that these woodlands are "properly managed"? And what exactly does
it mean to properly manage forests anyway? There are virtually no
standards or regulatory oversight over wood sourcing operations to ensure
that the landscape ecology and biological diversity are not being harmed.
It is a quiet crisis, and there is virtually no environmental group
paying any attention--except the Dogwood Alliance in North Carolina and
some of its grassroots allies. I have been working to get the Sierra
Club's attention, and they are slowly responding. The Club is going to
reconsider its biomass policy as a result of my pointing out these

Another issue is the so-called waste wood that is used to fuel many
biomass burners. There is virtually no regulation to ensure that
contaminated wood is not burned. Simply burning wood creates thousands
if not millions of combustion byproducts. But when you toss painted or
treated wood in the burner, you make a witches' brew of toxic gases and
particulates. Many biomass burners run on municipal solid waste, which
is one of the Biggest No-No's in the recycling world.

Some biomass burners run on crops. What is the long-term effect on soils
when monocultured crops are grown over and over again, just to feed a
power plant? Hard to say, but it is unlikely to be good.

The fact is, we have far more questions than answers, and no one has done
any environmental impact statements on the industry. At least not
lately. And the impacts--especially on forests in the southeast and in
Maine--are beginning to be felt rather severely.

Where are the advocates? How did it get this bad? Well, the so-called
green-power marketing tail is wagging the environmental policy dog.
Recycling advocates have not been paying attention, but they need
to--fast. An energy corporation's high-priced "sustainable energy" fuel
is a recycling organization's valuable raw material.

Will the recycling industry stand up against the green power industry
over the biomass debate? I hope GRRN will take the lead and tell the
"certified sustainable" power companies to take their biomass and shove

There is no excuse for a corporation to get away with burning municipal
solid waste and forests and say this is good for the environment.

Two people who can provide additional information on the problems with
biomass burning and forests are Denny Haldeman of Tennessee
<denny@voyageronline.net> and Ron Huber of Maine

The Chair of the Sierra Club's Energy Committee is Ned Ford. He's
coordinating the biomass policy review. <ned.ford@sierraclub.org>

Ultimately, if biomass continues to grow its share of the power supply
pool, it will be impossible to put any controls on it, since the demand
for feedstock will simply give industry the excuse to ignore all calls
for regulation. In most states there is no regulation of private lands
logging anyway, which is why the situation is already out of control now.
More market share just means more problems.

It is important to recognize that there may not be such thing as a
"properly managed" forest anymore. At least not in the sense that
forests can supply industrial needs over the long term. Much ecological
research indicates that forest soils are severely degraded and deprived
of nutrients over time, as logging occurs. There may be no such thing as
sustainable forestry. You can't prove there is such a thing, because we
can't see into the future. The only thing we know for sure is that there
are plenty of examples where logging is and has been definitely
*unsustainable*--creating permanent moonscapes where lush beautiful
forests once stood. Based on these observations, it is therefore all the
more urgent that we do not buy into schemes which will only add to an
already skyrocketing demand for wood products.

David Orr
Sierra Club activist
Seattle WA