Citizens Urge EPA and Congress to Choose Public Interest Over Politics on Energy Policy

– Mike Ewall and Samantha Chirillo

In December, 900 Americans, including 100 organizations across the U.S. collectively voiced their concerns about major parts of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, in comments submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Citizens specifically asked the EPA to:

·      set more aggressive targets and address environmental justice

·      not encourage more fracking (gas) or nuclear energy, and close the methane loophole

·      disallow a shift from coal to biomass and trash burning and close the biogenic CO2 loophole

The EPA released their revised framework in November 2014, shortly before the comment deadline on the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan.  In a memo dated November 19, 2014, EPA announced its decision to virtually ignore the carbon dioxide emissions of biomass energy in its revised Framework for Assessing Biogenic CO2 Emissions from Stationary Sources. After years of urging to accurately account for these emissions, grassroots advocates across the U.S. contend that the EPA’s biogenic carbon loophole will open the door to an onslaught of incineration that will harm public health, exacerbate runaway climate change, and degrade our nation’s forests and drinking watersheds.

Ignoring its own Scientific Advisory Board, the EPA has demonstrated that politics trump science when it comes to climate change. Sound science has shown that biomass energy facilities are not “carbon neutral” and emit 50% more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than a coal-fired facility.  Trash incineration emits 2.5 times as much CO2 as coal per unit of energy produced.

Sound science has also shown that a biomass energy facility emits higher levels of dangerous pollutants, such as particulate matter, per unit of energy produced than a coal-fired facility, harming especially children and the elderly.  In the case of trash incineration, it’s far more polluting than coal by every available measure.

This new EPA policy allows CO2 emissions from burning waste to be completely ignored.  This would include incineration of trash, food waste, animal waste (such as poultry litter), sewage sludge and construction/demolition waste.  This is justified on the assumption that these wastes would cause more global warming emissions if landfilled, as if conventional landfilling is the only alternative.

The new EPA policy, still largely uncertain, will at best ignore CO2 emissions from forest and agriculture-derived biomass and at worst provide political cover for the destruction of the public’s natural resources in the most vulnerable states. Each state gets to choose whether it will address these sources in its compliance plan to meet Clean Power Plan goals. The memo states that “. . . the EPA expects that states’ reliance specifically on sustainably-derived agricultural- and forest-derived feedstocks may also be an approvable element of their compliance plans.” Rather than specifying the requirements to pass a sustainability test, “the agency expects to recognize the biogenic CO2 emissions and climate policy benefits of waste-derived and certain forest-derived industrial byproduct feedstocks, based on the conclusions supported by a variety of technical studies, including the revised framework” and consultations with various stakeholders. This could include industry, industry-funded scientists, and environmental groups funded to make deals with the industry.

“Government agencies already work with industry, biased scientists, and compromised environmental groups to label destructive public forest logging as ‘sustainable.’ What’s worse with this new EPA policy is that it falsely portrays this logging as beneficial for the climate, and now the states most politically dominated by the timber industry can get more money to log more of our forests without taxing the multinational private forest owners,” explains Roy Keene, public interest forester for 40 years and Executive Director of Our Forests, based in Oregon, the state with the largest timber harvest volume.

The EPA recognizes that some states, like Oregon, already have “sustainable” forest management plans without critically evaluating from even a carbon accounting standpoint what is “sustainable” or “sustained yield,” as forest management plans call it. The O&C Act of 1937 mandated that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sustain the whole forest and its multiple uses by the public — the waterways, soils, recreation value, and timber harvest – although never implemented as such. The National Forest Management Act mandates that the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) calculate non-declining yield (a.k.a. “sustained yield”) levels from the sale of timber from each forest.  However, the mandates and the reality are totally different. Already an increasing trend not only among state agencies, but also in the U.S. Forest Service, managers are hiding data on timber harvest and soil and telling nonprofits they’ll have to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get data.

Over time, these agencies, including the USFS, have shifted from using the board foot to the inappropriate cubic foot as a unit of measurement yet still claim a “sustainable yield” of timber. The cubic foot is adequate when measuring the entire volume of the tree. However, the board foot, used to measure just the wood that can be made into lumber, is generally considered the more honest unit of measure of harvest volume from a forest when comparing among trees of different sizes or stands of different ages. A larger tree without defect has more board feet per cubic foot that can be made into lumber than a smaller tree. The larger tree historically has had a higher price per cubic foot than a smaller tree, although biomass energy market is now increasing the value of that smaller tree that is meanwhile less suitable for use in construction. Agencies using cubic feet overinflate the harvest volume of younger trees to justify replacing one slower-growing older tree with six faster-growing seedlings. Even if the cubic feet in a logged stand increases, the quantity of wood in that stand that can be made into a board foot of dimensional lumber declines.

The total carbon stored also declines then, especially considering that half of the carbon in Pacific Northwest forests is stored in the soil and largely lost upon logging. In his book Reforming the Forest Service, Randal O’Toole predicted that board foot sales from national forests would decline 30% as long as the USFS reports cubic feet while making the bogus sustainable yield justification. Of course, the market for chips has increased all the while. Drawing a flawed comparison using cubic feet ignores both the longer-term economic and ecosystem benefits of an older, biodiverse stand over a young plantation. When an agency changes the unit of measurement it uses, one can no longer validly compare its harvest data before and after the change.

Moreover, existing state plans are complex, involving multiple levels of government and stakeholders and took years to create. Will the EPA force any state to revise its forest management plan when it was partly written and claimed to be “sustainable” by scientists at the state’s leading agriculture university (e.g. Oregon State University)? States without existing plans can simply “encourage participation in sustainable forest management programs developed by third-party forestry and/or environmental entities,” the EPA recognizes. However, the way the system works currently, forest certifiers have a financial incentive to certify, and certified forests are not independently and credibly monitored, according to Keene. There are no common minimum sustainability standards among certifying bodies, which focus on process, not on outcomes. Consumers do not have adequate information. University of Alberta policy analysts have recognized such market failures of certification and that, “given the drawbacks associated with certification, there may be more appropriate alternatives” for “the elusive goal of sustainable forest management.”

The “environmental entities” may be logging selectively instead of clearcutting but are logging a much larger area and destroying the soil using a mechanized approach rather than creating jobs and are not independently monitored. There is little to no citizen involvement or oversight of either forest certification schemes or logging operations contracted by or consented to by environmental groups.  If “sustainable forest management” is so “sustainable,” why the lack of transparency and accountability?

The timber and bioenergy industries and their politicians, leading proponents of the EPA’s biogenic carbon loophole, also promise that more logging and burning will yield more jobs and revenue. However, based on Oregon State Employment Department and U.S. Forest Service data, dramatic increases in the timber harvest volume from the end of the 2009 recession and 2013 are not accompanied by proportional increases in jobs or revenue. Keene argues that cutting and burning more of the public’s carbon-storing forested watersheds at a time when chip and pellet exports to fuel facilities in Europe and Asia are at an all time high is making the U.S. a resource colony. If Obama and Congress want to increase jobs and bolster rural economies, why don’t they stop the rising export of raw logs and chips from public forests and tax private exports?

At least half of the harvest volume from privately owned forests in Oregon is already exported to Asia in one form or another, untaxed. The southeastern U.S. has been the leading export region of forest biomass to European countries that similarly do not count carbon dioxide emitted from biomass energy facilities. In early November, citizens in Chesapeake, VA, protested the climate impact and degradation to their own environment from biomass export.

“We’re alarmed that the Obama Administration’s climate action in the form of this EPA decision will actually worsen climate change, further drain local economies and disproportionately impact the poorest Americans,” said Chirillo, M.S., M.P.A., Steering Committee member of the Anti-Biomass Incineration Campaign.

Chirillo explains that the timing of the EPA’s decision is not surprising, as the Subcommittee on International Trade, chaired by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, and others in Congress put the finishing touches on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the newest NAFTA-derived trade deal. “This trade deal, combined with the EPA’s legitimizing burning forests for energy essentially greases the skids for more of the public’s forest resources and jobs to be shipped overseas, contributing to climate change while degrading public health and food security at home. Hardly sustainable.”

Although U.S. Senator Wyden’s O&C bill to increase logging on public forests in Oregon ultimately stalled, the EPA decision gives similar or even more destructive logging legislation by Republican majorities in both houses new political cover.

“This kind of legislation is de facto privatization. It allows more industry manipulation with even less public involvement, basic accounting, or scrutiny of forest practices that contribute to climate change. The water that flows out of the forest irrigates farms. More logging and biomass extraction will exacerbate the drying effects of climate change,” forester Keene warns.

Forest legislation in Congress generally does not consider already degraded watersheds and does not account for the economic effects on agricultural irrigation or domestic water supply. In 2014, the National Weather Service rated drought in Oregon as “severe” and neighboring California, a top food-producing state, as “extreme.” Currently, most states do not require that new bioenergy facility owners show they can continuously source enough biomass to keep producing energy, let alone leave water supplies intact, before state agencies under the authority of the EPA hand out pollution permits. How can states or the EPA claim “sustainable forest management” without supply assessment?

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