Trump pushes biomass, scientists call it worse than coal

Environmentalists say burning trees releases carbon dioxide previously trapped inside the plant.

By Jennifer A. Dlouhy / Bloomberg

The Trump administration endorsed burning trees and other biomass to produce energy on Thursday, vowing to promote a practice some scientists have declared more environmentally devastating than coal-fired power.

The Environmental Protection Agency joined the departments of Energy and Agriculture in a letter to congressional leaders committing to “encourage the use of biomass as an energy solution.” The EPA also reasserted its view that power plants burning trees and other woody materials to generate electricity should be viewed as carbon neutral, because when the plants eventually regrow they remove carbon dioxide from the air.

The agencies also are committing to collaborate on policies promoting biomass, which could include Energy Department research and encouraging utilities to substitute wood for coal in power plants. EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the move “will support good-paying jobs in rural communities, protect our nation’s air quality and remove unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

But environmentalists say burning trees releases carbon dioxide previously trapped inside the plant. And when forests are cleared to produce energy, it can take them decades — or longer — to regrow, if they ever do. The result is a power source that can generate more carbon dioxide emissions than the coal it is sometimes meant to replace.

“When biomass from forests is burned for electricity, it immediately emits CO2 to the atmosphere in amounts equivalent to, and often greater than, fossil fuels,” more than six dozen scientists said in a letter Wednesday to Wheeler. “If trees are harvested for use in bioenergy production and then regrown, the combination of the regrowth and displaced fossil fuels can eventually pay off the carbon debt, but that ‘payback period’ typically ranges from decades to hundreds of years.”

The EPA’s own science advisers also warned that assuming biomass emissions are carbon neutral “is inconsistent with the underlying science.”

Thursday’s letter from the federal agencies responds to a provision Congress tucked into a spending bill directing federal agencies to establish policies that “reflect the carbon neutrality of forest biomass for energy production.” Even before that directive, under former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, the agency declared in April that it generally considered burning biomass for energy as carbon neutral.

The Trump administration now is effectively doubling down on that declaration, with the EPA promising to help unlock “the full benefits of biomass for energy” and encourage its growth “as a key part of our nation’s energy supply.”

The approach could be good news for timber companies and firms that pelletize wood for power plants, such as Enviva Partners. The American Forest and Paper Association said the administration was ending “seven years of policy uncertainty” that “jeopardizes our companies’ ability to invest in biomass and build and upgrade their facilities.”

The EPA also has proposed giving utilities credit for cutting carbon dioxide emissions when they replace some coal in power plants with biomass. That kind of substitution would qualify as an efficiency upgrade under the EPA’s proposal to relax Obama-era Clean Power Plan curbs on greenhouse gas emissions from electricity.

Shifting to biomass increases carbon dioxide emissions “in nearly every scenario,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, Clean Air Task Force and seven other environmental groups said in comments filed on the plan Wednesday.

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

Slowdown ahead for port as COVID pummels aerospace industry

The Port of Everett is bracing to suffer as its biggest customer, the Boeing Co., scales back production.

Rep. Larsen tours small businesses given federal PPP loans

The congressman said leaders in Washington D.C. continue to negotiate for further COVID-19 relief.

Relieve the pandemic coin shortage: Bust open the piggy bank

The coronavirus lockdown means less metal is in circulation. Banks and merchants are desperate for change.

Boeing: No orders, more cancellations for grounded 737 Max

The company has lost more than 800 net orders so far this year.

Glacier Lanes won’t be spared: Owners decide to close forever

Bowlers statewide are rallying to open venues shut by COVID rules, but this Everett business isn’t waiting.

Snohomish County PUD embraces ‘smart’ meters despite concerns

A handful of customers said they were worried about privacy, peak-hour rate increases and safety.

Marysville sues Arlington over plan for 500 apartments

Marysville worries the major project on 51st Avenue NE will gum up traffic at a nearby intersection.

Big new apartment complex anchors Broadway’s transformation

The seven-story, 140-unit Kinect @ Broadway is one of several facelifting projects in Everett’s core.

Pop into this Everett pop-up store for new vinyl records

Upper Left Records will offer albums from local bands and new pressings of classic recordings.

Everett’s new equity manager is ready to roll up her sleeves

In her new job, Kay Barnes will work to ensure that the city’s staff reflects Everett’s diversity.

Everett startup makes a swift pivot from in-person to online

Abacus links hobbyists, crafters and artists with people who want to learn new skills — virtually.

Dining in the street is now an official thing in Everett

With a free permit, businesses can expand outdoor seating to street parking areas — and fencing is provided.