Bioenergy in the balance in the climate bill debate

As often as deforestation is decried as a driver of global climate change, it’s hard to believe that anyone would propose more deforestation as part of a climate bill.  But that’s what is about to happen in the House of Representatives as the Agriculture Committee takes a whack at the Waxman-Markey climate bill.  Part of what’s at stake is what type of bioenergy--including transportation biofuels and electricity-producing biomass--the government supports.

The Waxman-Markey bill, in its current version, does something very important.  It includes a set of biomass safeguards to ensure the federal government does not incentivize deforestation, destruction of protected federal forest lands, and increased global warming from biomass.  Furthermore, it doesn't mess with the carefully constructed GHG standards established as part of the renewable fuel standard. (For more the safeguards and standards, see this factsheet.)

That’s important because the bill also creates a huge new demand for biomass to burn for electricity through its renewable electricity standard, or RES. And this is on top of the existing mandate for biomass based fuels--the renewable fuel standard (RFS). I estimate that these two policies combined with the price signal created by the cap itself could lead to a biomass demand equal to nearly twice our average annual timber harvest for the past two decades (15.5 billion cubic feet of green wood). 

Absent biomass safeguards and the GHG standards, it is impossible to imagine that amount of additional demand would not drive deforestation, push destructive projects forward on federal lands, and contribute to global warming. The biomass safeguards and standards are an important balance to ensure the RES and RFS do what they're is supposed to do: fight global warming and provide truly renewable energy.

But now, thanks to influence from the timber industry and Big Ag, a fight is brewing.

Some members of Congress, led by Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson, are trying to push policies that would weaken the bill’s forest safeguards and ignore the carbon pollution from destroying forests. 

Peterson proposes to gut the Waxman-Markey biomass safeguards, opening areas that have been protected - including National Forest roadless areas, wilderness areas, National Monuments, and other protected federal lands - to biomass production.  He also wants to weaken GHG standards for transportation biofuels that Congress already passed, back in 2007, requiring that biofuels prove they are better than fossil fuels when it comes to carbon emissions from all steps of fuel production and use. 

If timber and agriculture interests and their congressional allies are successful in weakening the safeguards designed to ensure that we don’t burn irreplaceable forests for energy, the consequences for America’s federal forests will be disastrous and we will not achieve our pollution reduction goals. Combined the RES, RFS, and price signal of the cap itself could lead to GHG from biomass that would reduce the Waxman-Markey goal of a 17% reduction in emissions by as much as 6%.

Unfortunately, as House leaders strive to unify members and pass a landmark climate bill, these members’ voices are stronger than ever.  But without safeguards and GHG standards, we will be unable to tell if our bioenergy policies are doing more harm than good. We could easily end up wining the climate fight only to have to start trying to put an end to newly blind bioenergy mandates and incentives.