Could “Carbon Neutral” Biomass Amendment Cripple Climate Progress?
Thursday, October 13, 2016 10:36 AM
The bipartisan federal energy bill marching its way forward to passage — perhaps as soon as November — contains a controversial biomass provision that could slow U.S. progress on addressing climate change, according to some energy analysts.
Meanwhile, Maine prepares to subsidize burning biomass
Sen. Angus King Responds—
A spokesman for Senator King offered the following statement on the biomass amendment to the federal energy bill —
When properly managed, our forests can serve as a source of clean and renewable energy. Forests act as valuable carbon sinks pulling CO2 from the atmosphere through the natural carbon cycle that allows trees to live and grow. When a tree falls and decays, much of the carbon it contains is released back into the atmosphere as part of a cycle that has been ongoing for millennia. Conversely, the burning of fossil fuels releases carbon that has been trapped underground and sequestered outside of this cycle, introducing it anew into the atmosphere.
For Senator King, an abundant, affordable, locally grown and sustainable source of energy which does not add new carbon to the atmosphere makes common — and scientific — sense. This is particularly true when the power from biomass-based power plants replaces that from fossil fuel plants, which is generally the case. Additionally, President Barack Obama, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and hundreds of scientists have all testified to the carbon benefits of biomass.
Those concerned about the negative impacts of increased biomass energy production need only to look at Maine’s culture of responsible and sustainable forest management where for generations we have heated our homes and fueled our mills with wood from our most abundant natural resource. The majority of the wood harvested in Maine is certified as sustainably managed, meaning independent, internationally accredited organizations certify that the land is sustainably harvested. We have seen our forests grow while simultaneously providing resources for our state’s forest products industry. Further, nearly all biomass in Maine comes from wood waste, such as residue from paper and sawmills, that would otherwise rot (and release carbon) or take up space in landfills.
The bipartisan amendment authored by Senators King and Collins, which passed unanimously, would require federal agencies to simplify and unify their treatment of forest biomass, in order to address the current inconsistencies in federal policy. Of concern to Senator King, and in light of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, are the variations between federal agencies that have created significant uncertainty for Maine businesses that rely on biomass as a source of energy. This amendment would work to ease that burden and lay the ground work for new technologies to responsibly use natural resources — a tradition that has been practiced in Maine for generations.
The biomass amendment, which was initially introduced by Senators Susan Collins and Angus King, assumes that the tree limbs, tree tops, and small trees chipped for fuel and burned to create electricity add no carbon dioxide into the air even though smoke coming out of the pipe is at least as dirty as coal, according to Environmental Protection Agency data.
The zero-carbon argument is that the carbon dioxide emissions are equalized by the carbon locked up when trees grow back and suck carbon out of the air. That so-called “carbon neutral” assessment is scientifically sound in the long term, according to forest scientists who were consulted in 2014 by Collins and King.
The problem is not so much one of accuracy as of critical timing. The zero-net-carbon argument is based on a hundred-year time frame.
But attempts to slow the speed of global warming are on much shorter time horizons.
The 1,000-page federal energy bill is based on the Clean Power Plan — America’s answer to the 2015 Paris climate accords. The CPP has 2030 as a target for reducing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by at least 32 percent from what they were in 2005.
That’s 13 years from now.
Given recent climate science that shows atmospheric warming and related effects increasing at exponential speed, with predictions that the polar ice cap will have melted so much by 2030 that ships can regularly pass through the Northwest Passage in summer, there is an increasing urgency among policy makers to curb emissions. Doubts about related rising sea levels and coastal flooding have melted away along with the ice from Greenland’s Jacobshavn glacier, which King visited this past summer.
Those shortening time horizons for a warming planet run smack into conflict with the 100-year time frame for locking up carbon through biomass, according to the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PPI), an energy think tank that analyzed data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) in the U.S. Department of Energy.
If biomass were a minor contributor to greenhouse gases, this might not be a big concern. But the PPI reports biomass plants are extremely inefficient, capturing only about 24 percent of energy per megawatt hour and spewing out about 3,000 pounds of carbon dioxide in one concentrated burst, along with soot, other greenhouse gases and pollutants.
That is 40 to 60 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than coal plants and almost 300 percent more than the most efficient gas plants, according to the PPI analysis.
The scientific data from the EPA used as the basis for the October 2016 PPI analysis is available at www.pfpi.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/EPA-non-gogen-eGRID-data-for-2012.xlsx.
Biomass provides a pretty small slice of all the electricity produced in America. Still, if the analysts found biomass emissions are not counted in the pollution scorecard, they will add a 3.5 percent increase of carbon into the atmosphere over the next 13 years, provide disincentives to investing in solar, and put no pressure on reducing coal use. That could blow a hole in the greenhouse gas reduction targets in the CPP, according to the PPI.
The “Carbon Neutral” Argument
The hundred-year timeframe used as the basis for the carbon neutral argument is a completely acceptable time-frame in scientific circles. It’s the same used for fossil fuels and thus makes direct comparisons more accurate. Over that length of time, the carbon-neutral equation appears to work out for biomass. Trees do grow back and sequester carbon.
“There is nothing wrong with the science. For forestry, we are talking on the order of decades for trees to grow back, so that number is not wrong,” said Aaron Strong, a specialist in carbon accounting from Stanford University who analyzes science applications related to policy and markets. Strong, a native Mainer, is now at the Univerisy of Maine and soon to join the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.
“It’s not crazy to make this hundred-year average. It’s been standard practice in climate policy,” he said.
Even the California carbon offset model, wherein polluters buy carbon credits from those who grow trees to lock up carbon, is based on a hundred-year time frame, said Strong.
“That’s how carbon offsets work and they are broadly supported by environmental groups,” he said.
As with many things, though, the devil is in the details.
Biomass is not all the same. Not all trees lock up carbon at the same rate or release the same amount when burned. The EPA recognizes this and is seeking carbon accounting at a much more specific level than what is now in the federal energy bill.
That would basically tease out carbon release and recapture by specific tree.
Robert Seymour, a forest scientist at the University of Maine, is teaching his university students how to do carbon accounting on the ground in his forestry classes this year alongside standard forestry assesments.
Calculating the carbon sequestered in a tree is more complicated but still similar to calculating the number of board feet. Like spruce or fir markets, carbon markets also fluctuate in price.
Some trees are more economically valuable as standing carbon sinks than others, said Seymour.
“Look at a seven-inch-diameter hemlock,” said Seymour. “It’s fifty cents on the pulp market, now. It’s $3 on the carbon sequestration market.”
American beech is a classic example of why detailed carbon accounting matters. Beech is carbon dense and valuable in locking up carbon, according to Seymour.
Keeping beech standing to do duty as a carbon-keeper makes much more sense both environmentally and economically than cutting it down. Beech is a very low-value tree, economically speaking. It sells for about $1 a ton as biomass. At a biomass plant the carbon-richness will mostly go up the pipe as greenhouse gases.
That’s an over-simplification of forestry and carbon cycles, according to Strong, but it illustrates the point that “carbon neutrality” can’t be scientifically applied to biomass as one-size-fits-all.
That’s why the EPA is seeking carbon accounting at a much more specific level than what is now in the biomass provision in the energy bill, since getting it wrong has real world climate consequences.
“Carbon neutrality is not a scientific decision,” said Strong. “It’s a political and economic one.”
Strong said legislators in the business of making policy are seeking simplicity and to encourage economic investment, so it is understandable they don’t want to get caught up in the time-consuming data analysis process the EPA is seeking, said Strong.
Simplifying biomass into a catchall carbon-neutral category makes that possible.
In a perfect policy world, Strong favors a straight carbon tax for polluters rather than a pollution trade-off between industry and forest landowners. If the tax money were dedicated to providing incentives for landowners to lock up carbon (in combination with managing their land for lumber or other forest products), there would be no need to individually analyze biomass fuels to figure out when carbon neutrality becomes scientific reality.
The carbon tax approach would also provide incentives for polluters to control carbon directly at the smokestack and incentives for forest landowners to grow carbon-rich and potentially more complex forests and minimize the regulatory overload while reducing greenhouse gases right out of the gate.
That said, encouraging trees to grow bigger or forests to become more diverse means cutting fewer trees and that doesn’t help with logging jobs.
In Maine, Economics Trumps Environment
Meanwhile, here in Maine biomass plants are poised to get a $13.4 million state taxpayer subsidy so they don’t go out of business.
On its own, Maine biomass plants can’t support themselves in the era of cheap U.S.-produced oil and gas. Biomass simply isn’t a competitive energy source.
The subsidy that was passed into law earlier this year is primarily a jobs bill, with the ultimate goal of saving about 400 logging jobs and 900 other indirect jobs related to the biomass industry. Many Mainers in those jobs have seen the pulp and paper industry disappear. Anyone who has gone to a former paper town in Maine knows that the economic consequences have been dire.
The decision on whether Maine’s biomass plants will get a two-year contract that allows them to get non-competitive above-market rates for the electricity they produce is pending, according to the Maine Public Utilities Commission (MPUC).
Putting the environmental concerns aside for a moment, even the economic deal is controversial.
The mission of the MPUC is to protect electricity rate payers, but the biomass subsidy law appears to have attracted only a single bidder, according to a Bangor Daily News investigation. That is likely ReEnergy, a New York-based private equity company that operates four biomass plants in Maine.
If the MPUC accepts the bid, it raises the concern of whether they can balance the interest of all Maine rate payers when subsidizing a single corporation with taxpayer money.
The MPUC has declined to provide information on the bidders while deliberations are under way.
Spokesman Harry Lanphear said the MPUC is in an unusual situation because the analysts have to weigh the ratepayers’ interest against the requirements of the new biomass law. To help sort that out, the MPUC hired London Economics, a Boston consulting firm, to analyze the bid (or bids) for the number of jobs the bidder could provide and other economic benefits.
Lanphear said MPUC will rule on the bid before the end of the year.
Under their deliberations, the MPUC will also look at existing state and federal environmental laws, he said.
And that is where the environment comes back into play.
The new state biomass bailout law is not just about jobs and rate payer fairness. Under the law, the winning biomass bidder must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote fuel diversity “to the maximum extent possible.”
With that, the state biomass bailout law slams head first into the federal energy bill.
According to the PPI and the EIA data, the biomass provision in the federal energy bill fails on both counts — not only are the biomass carbon dioxide emissions not counted in the pollution score card, but by not counting them, investment in renewable solar is discouraged.
“This is the bigger problem,” said Strong, the carbon expert. “The disincentive for solar and other forms of alternative energy that don’t produce carbon.”
The Maine Forest Connection
One question in Maine is whether timber harvesting of small trees for biomass would increase, either because of the biomass provision in the federal energy bill or because of the pending Maine subsidy for the biomass industry.
The concern is that it could lead to poor forest management that encourages harvesting small trees to chip, when leaving them could continue to lock up carbon or grow a more complex forest with higher ecological and forest product values.
Seymour at the University of Maine said he didn’t think that would happen because biomass is worth so little.
“Landowners get around a dollar a ton for selling biomass,” he said. “That adds up to about $5 to $10 an acre. Landowners don’t need a dollar a ton. They are not going to manage for biomass. It doesn’t make sense. Biomass is an add-on.”
Seymour then brought up low-value beech, again, indicating indirectly why more precision in carbon accounting makes sense not just in terms of emissions from the biomass plant, but on the ground in Maine forests.
Carbon offsets could make landowners favor growing beech, but there are also good reasons for cutting it down, said Seymour. Biomass plants provide a market for skinny low-value beech trees and allow a landowner to convert the forest to grow more valuable trees like maple and oak.
“Converting from beech to hardwood stands wouldn’t happen without a biomass market,” said Seymour.
One of the other arguments for burning biomass is that we might as well get electricity out of it, since tree limbs and debris left to rot in the woods after a timber harvest also release carbon back into the atmosphere.
That is an oversimplification, according to the Forest Guild. The carbon release from rotting wood is slower and can be taken up in complicated ways by other things growing in, on, under, and around the woody debris. The Forest Guild, an association of foresters, provides guidelines on how much deadwood to leave, based on the intensity of the timber harvest.
Forests are not just live trees and dead wood, either. They are living communities.
Conventional thinking is that younger, faster growing forests lock up more carbon than older forests, but living trees only sequester about 25 percent of forest carbon. Almost half is locked up in the soil, according to Mitch Lansky, a longtime advocate for sustainable forest practices in Maine who has helped shaped state forestry policy.
The complex interaction between rotting wood, tree roots, soil and soil fungi working together are only partially understood. What is known is that how wood is harvested matters as much as which trees are cut, since soils disturbed by timber harvesting release their carbon payload, according to Lansky.
Lansky says we need to keep our eyes on the bottom line.
“It is important to start increasing carbon sequestration now — through more volume, bigger and older trees, less damage, and adequate woody debris — regardless of what the market is for the wood.”