Are Enviro Groups Shifting Stances on Biomass?

– by Josh Schlossberg, April 9, 2012, The Biomass Monitor

Vermont is the “greenest” state in the U.S., according to “Most and Least Green States,”  a report by the organization 24/7 Wall St. So where do the Green Mountain State’s two biggest environmental groups, Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG)and Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC), stand on burning forests for energy?

Due to evolving—and sometimes contradictory—positions on the controversial issue over recent years, the answer’s not exactly clear cut.

Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) is urging the Vermont Legislature—on the verge of passing legislation for a Renewable Portfolio Standard—to disincentivize stand alone biomass power plants in favor of biomass heating or combined heat and power facilities. According to a 2012 policy statement, VPIRG “supports providing significant incentives to the most efficient uses of biomass (heating), and tiering incentives for other biomass uses based on their efficiency, with the most inefficient uses (large, electric-only or electric-led biomass plants) receiving no incentives.”

Contradicting this statement, however, is VPIRG’s 2009 publication, Repowering Vermont, written by James Moore. The report, still in circulation today, advocates for an expansion of almost 100 megawatts of biomass electricity in the state by 2032. The report also claims that an increase in logging for biomass energy will not harm Vermont’s forests, but instead benefit them, stating “the need to thin existing low-grade wood out of forests.” VPIRG does not provide scientific references to back up this assertion.

While VPIRG’s current policy statement insists that biomass energy projects that “increase global warming pollution over the mid to long term should be avoided,” their 2007 publication, Clean, Safe, and Affordable, depicts a chart showing levels of “global warming pollution” for biomass power plants to be zero. Data from biomass incinerator air permits reveals higher carbon dioxide smokestack emissions than from coal burning power plants.

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Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) has been perhaps the most involved of Vermont’s established environmental groups on the issue of biomass energy. Supportive of an expansion of the more efficient forms of biomass energy in the state, the group has hosted a series of public forums to solicit citizen involvement on this contentious topic.

Jamey Fidel, Forest and Biodiversity Program Director for VNRC, was appointed by the State Legislature to the Biomass Energy Development Working Group, along with several members of the biomass and forest products industry. While the Working Group’s final report disappointed biomass opponents by setting the stage for a significant expansion of industrial-scale biomass energy in the state, the report also recommended “procurement standards” for the sourcing of wood, a concept Fidel championed throughout the three year long process. VNRC is also working on “model harvesting guidelines” to accompany the procurement standards, while encouraging “heightened review by the Agency of Natural Resources” for the potential ecological impacts of biomass logging.

As recently as April 2012, VNRC has urged the state government to “support biomass energy projects and policies that clearly demonstrate net greenhouse gas benefits because carbon neutrality cannot be assumed for all types of woody biomass energy.”  VNRC is also “intervening in PSB proceedings to address concerns related to large scale projects” in Vermont, such as biomass power proposals in Fair Haven and Springfield, according to Fidel.

In 2007, VNRC had a somewhat different view of the “carbon neutrality” of biomass energy. “Biomass offers us a carbon-free, renewable, and local energy source. That’s right in step with VNRC’s traditional values,” said Elizabeth Courtney, VNRC’s executive director in Diverging In The Woods: Facing Market Forces, Will Vermont Choose Sustainability? by Will Lindner, published in VNRC’s Vermont Environmental Report.

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A number of State Legislators and much of the Vermont voting public appear to be ill-informed as to the impacts on the environment and public health from biomass incineration. Are the recent efforts of Vermont’s two biggest—and arguably, most influential—environmental groups to discourage the most inefficient uses of a limited and precious forest resource enough to slow down the biomass train they, in part, helped lay track for?

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