Scott Pruitt’s Announcement on Forest Biomass Defies Science

Scott Pruitt is no fan of science, so it was not a real surprise that his announcement about forest bioenergy this week sidestepped research, facts, and the conclusions of Environmental Protection Agency’s own science advisers.

Pruitt told a friendly industry group that the EPA had decided that burning trees to produce electricity is “carbon neutral,” meaning it produces zero carbon emissions. His accompanying policy document states that EPA’s policy “will be to treat biogenic CO2 emissions resulting from the combustion of biomass from managed forests at stationary sources for energy production as carbon neutral.”

But in the same document, EPA acknowledges the well-established fact that forest bioenergy is no such thing.  “It is not scientifically valid to assume that all biogenic feedstocks are carbon neutral,” the EPA statement said - reflecting the determination made by its own Scientific Advisory Board.  Still, Pruitt's EPA would jettison the scientific finding to give businesses certainty.

Like so much else from Pruitt and the Trump administration, this statement defies science and is bad for our environment. It wrongly conflates the use of so-called forest biomass with the genuinely clean and zero-carbon energy sources we need to invest more in, like solar and wind.

Cutting and burning trees in power plants puts millions of tons of carbon pollution in the air immediately — at levels comparable to or even greater than fossil fuels. Industry lobbyists argue new trees will recapture that carbon, but even under the best-case scenario, that regrowth takes decades to centuries. In the meantime those carbon emissions will do real damage – now. That means melting glaciers, sea-level rise, and more costly and devastating effects on human health.

In many places, the forests may never return. Neither Scott Pruitt nor the utilities that operate the polluting power plants can guarantee that the forests will be replanted or that they will grow back as expected.

In addition to his rejection of science, the policy announcement short-circuits the necessary public review procedures required of federal agencies. In true Trumpian fashion, Pruitt attempts to avoid accountability through deception: “This statement of agency policy does not represent a final agency action and does not directly address the treatment of biogenic CO2 emissions at any particular stationary source or in any specific regulatory context.” In effect, Pruitt has made the policy decision before undertaking the required review, and then denied he has made the decision in the first place.

In some respects, this announcement comes as no surprise.  After all, Pruitt has dismissed the scientifically established link between the carbon pollution and the warming of our planet — and even claimed that a hotter planet might be good for us. He’s also trying to roll back EPA’s commonsense standards to cut carbon pollution from America’s power plants and cars.

Yet when it serves the interests of his industry pals, Pruitt appears more than willing to address carbon emissions. Of course, he conveniently overlooks the fact that burning forest biomass for electricity puts more carbon pollution into the atmosphere.

The threat is real and now. In parts of the Southeast, unique hardwood forests that are massive storehouses of carbon are being destroyed and turned into wood pellets for power.

Our nation is making tremendous strides to reduce carbon pollution from electricity generation. The market is helping, too. Already, meeting U.S. electricity needs via energy efficiency, solar and wind is cheaper than ever. In fact, it’s cheaper than using biomass in our power plants. To prevent the immediate risks from climate change, we’ve got to curtail our reliance on fossil fuels. But burning trees instead is a step in the wrong direction.

About the Authors

Sami Yassa

Senior Scientist, Climate & Clean Energy Program

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