US scientists to EPA: follow the science on biomass to protect our climate & forests

Burning trees for energy is dirtier than coal. And it threatens some of our most biologically diverse and precious forests. Last fall, more than 40 scientists wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) laying out their concerns with an agency proposal that would in many instances allow large power plants to burn trees and other biomass as fuel while ignoring the carbon emissions. Now, the ranks of scientists sounding the alarm about the risks of dirty biomass—and calling on EPA to do something about it—have swelled. 

In a new letter made public today, a whopping 91 scientists from around the country reiterated the scientific community’s concerns, urging EPA to heed the input it received from its own science advisors, carefully evaluate the carbon emissions impacts of burning different types of biomass fuels, and put in place science-driven regulations that help clean up the biomass energy industry.

Their message was clear:

There is no scientific justification for accepting the biomass energy industry’s often repeated assertion that just because trees and other biomass regrow, all biomass energy should automatically be considered “carbon neutral”.

The latest and best science tells us just the opposite: that not all biomass is made equal.  Some types of biomass have the potential to make the climate better by offering power plants a low-carbon alternative to coal, either because they grows back and reabsorbs carbon quickly—for example, a dedicated energy crop—or because they would have released their carbon to atmosphere anyway—for example, tree tops and limbs from forestry harvests that would otherwise be burned on site or left in the field to decay.

But others have a lot of potential to make the climate a whole lot worse. In particular, chipping up and burning whole trees for electricity actually increases carbon emissions for decades compared to fossil fuels like coal.

Getting a system into place that acknowledges these differences and is able to rigorously account for the carbon emissions impacts of different biomass fuels could mean the difference between an industry that helps us reduce the carbon emissions driving dangerous climate change and one that makes climate change worse. Failure to do so, the group said, “could result in regulations that distort the marketplace towards greater use of unsustainable sources of biomass, with significant risks to our climate, forests and the valuable ecosystem services they provide and we rely on.”

Not surprisingly, this esteemed group of scientists has it just right. 

Earlier this month, the President took a historic step in the fight against climate change by announcing a plan to curb carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants. Accounting for the carbon emitted when large power plants burn biomass will be critical to ensuring that this effort really does clean up our air and climate. Conversely, ignoring carbon emissions from biomass risks compromising the very goals the President set forth. It could mean we clamp down on carbon pollution from burning coal, but wind up increasing carbon emissions from our forests. 

As I discussed here, EPA set a high standard for itself in committing to a science-driven process to determine how to best account for the carbon emissions associated with different biomass fuels. It issued a draft accounting framework, empaneled a Science Advisory Board that reviewed that framework, and created a process in which the broader scientific community, the general public, and public interest organizations could weigh in.

In the home stretch of developing those rules, the scientific community is speaking loudly and clearly to say that EPA took the right step by seeking scientific input. But it’s now time for the agency to embrace the key findings of its science panel, which echo the views of scientists across the country, and put in place smart rules, grounded in good science, that support a biomass energy industry that helps us achieve our climate goals and protects our forests.

Like these scientists, you can raise your voice now too. Take action now and tell the EPA to protect our forests and climate by cleaning up power plants that burn trees: