Baseload, Bioenergy

Flytings of Fancy: A Call for a Balanced National Biomass Resource Plan

Flyting is a ritual, poetic exchange of insults [practised] mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries. (…from Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation)

The battle between the biomass energy and power industry and members of the environmental community continues to rage in Washington. The catalyst of the conflagration is on-going consideration of the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016 (S. 2012).  

I use the word “debate” advisedly. Rather than a respectful and honest presentation of opposing points of view, what is occurring on the Internet, in the media and on Capitol Hill is more akin to a series of “yo’ momma” riffs—or the 2016 presidential debates—than to rational discourse.

The immediate battle began when S. 2012 was amended to include language directing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Departments of Agriculture and Energy to come up with a coordinated policy that would, in essence, declare woody biomass a carbon neutral source of energy. Lead sponsors of the proposal were Senators Collins (R-Maine), King (I-Maine) and Klobuchar (D-Minn.).

The amendment was unanimously adopted by the Senate and is now part of the negotiations of the House/Senate conference committee charged with reconciling the bills for final Congressional action and forwarding to the president for signature. Enactment of an energy bill is as low percentage proposition this year as it has been for almost a decade.

The debate about the carbon neutrality of forest bioenergy, however, will not end with close of the 114th Congress. The biomass industry will continue its plea for a legislated declaration of neutrality and many environmental groups, e.g., National Resources Defense Council and the Dogwood Alliance, will continue their opposition.

Would the argument be about someone’s make-believe mamma, it might be entertaining. As it is about a valuable natural resource that must be preserved but could profitably be enlisted in the fight against global warming, I am not laughing. Nor should you.

I can appreciate what motivates each of the sides. Industry feels that both their livelihoods and their integrity are being attacked. The environmentalists are attempting to protect a natural resource otherwise incapable of defending itself and which has already suffered at the hands of those who would exploit it.

Does that mean the right and wrong of this argument is clear? Far from it. There are credible studies on both sides that speak to the potential of forests to suck up CO2, and serve as a source of heat and power and to do so in a sustainable manner. There are equally credible concerns and studies that say this cannot—or perhaps more rightly—is not being done in the real world.

I have written before about what I believe is an unwise approach to the problem by industry. Even should federal agencies be legislatively directed to declare woody biomass carbon neutral, the reality is that it will do nothing to convince energy policy makers—particularly at the state level—to accept the conclusion as part of the clean energy gospel.

The biomass industry has a right to feel itself slighted by federal and many state decision makers. Of the potential sustainable energy options supported by federal tax laws and environmental regulation, biomass appears an afterthought.

Yes, the Clean Power Plan includes biomass in the technologies state planners may wish to employ. No, it is not something that is particularly encouraged and—quite frankly—most state energy and environmental officials are nervous about its employment in the shade of pretty virulent opposition by some in the environmental community.

The fact is that neither policy makers nor politicians are much willing to embrace conflict. This is particularly the case when perfectly good alternatives, e.g., solar, wind and efficiency, can be brought to bear on the problem.

Biomass’ place in energy and environmental policy is important, and unfortunately the barb-tossing manner in which it is debated is enervating rather than enlightening. When we speak of biomass’ potential role in fighting climate change we’re not simply speaking of either the forests or the trees.

As the Nature Conservancy’s Justin Adams points out:

How we manage our biological systems either releases or stores it. In fact, poor land use is responsible for at least 23 percent of global carbon emissions. But nature is already counter-balancing, absorbing 26 percent of emissions in our lands, predominantly in forests.

The operative word here is MANAGE. Biomass is a ubiquitous resource that, when well-managed, holds the possibility of bestowing upon society and the planet a host of economic and environmental benefits. Yes, there is the potential to manage it badly. More importantly, however, we are amassing the information needed to manage it wisely.

Research by Bronson Griscom and others support industry’s claim that judicious management and “selective logging can retain 85–100 percent of a forest’s biodiversity and at least 75 percent of its carbon.” Experiences in developing countries like Brazil and Indonesia have shown that it is possible to protect forests while allowing lumber and agricultural enterprises to operate.

I understand and respect efforts to prevent the pillage of precious resources. Inciting by invective rather than gaining insights through science, however, is not a productive path to follow. If a company is either burning or cutting whole living trees to produce power or to manufacture pellets for export, then let’s do something about that—not simply allow forests to lie fallow and take care of themselves.

We know that climate change is negatively impacting the world’s forests. Drought, heat, disease and swarms of insects are turning our forests into tinderboxes. Leaving forests to fend for themselves simply doesn’t work.

I no more agree with industry efforts to simply find by fiat that woody biomass is a carbon neutral source of clean sustainable energy than I agree with the blanket effort to declare forests off limits to economic activity.

I call upon both Congressional supporters of biomass like Senators Collins, King, Klobuchar, as well as its detractors, to put aside their mandates—pro or con—and facilitate a balanced national biomass utilization plan — one that values our forests and fields as a resource to be cared for, protected and employed in pursuit of a sustainable environment.

As a wise person once said: “why legislate it, when you can prove it?” It’s a question worth answering—rationally.

Disclosure: I am a former Executive Director of the Biomass Thermal Energy Council.

This article was originally published by CivilNotion.com and was republished with permission.