[EXCLUSIVE] Bioenergy Industry Consultant Critiques Scientists’ Letter to Congress

– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor

A white paper by a bioenergy industry consulting firm critiques a recent letter sent to Congress by 65 U.S. scientists opposing a carbon neutral “biomass” amendment to an energy policy bill, saying the letter includes “flawed logic,” “factual errors,” and “hyperbolic language.”

Carbon Neutrality

William Strauss, Ph.D., president and founder of Maine-based FutureMetrics, a global consultant in the wood pellet industry, agrees that not all biomass energy is automatically carbon neutral, as the amendment in the Energy Policy Modernization Act (approved by the House and Senate), would determine.

However, Strauss and a number of other bioenergy supporters “strongly disagree with the experts’ characterization in their letter to Congress that biomass is never carbon neutral.”

Strauss writes that for biomass energy to be carbon neutral “the forest growth rate has to be greater than or equal to the harvest rate.” In other words, so long as forests continue to adequately grow and sequester carbon, logging for bioenergy adds no additional carbon into the atmosphere.

Letter co-author William R. Moomaw, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus and Co-Director of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University, said that Strauss’ definition of carbon neutral biomass is “far too simplistic.”

Moomaw agrees that other trees will take in the CO2 released by logging a tree for bioenergy, however he makes the point that these trees are also absorbing carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels.

“The proper way to do carbon accounting,” Moomaw said, “is to add up all of the emissions, and then all of the removals into sinks.”

Coal to Biomass

The scientists’ letter cautions that the carbon neutrality amendment would “encourage a shift to forest biofuels in the form of pellets and wood chips to replace coal in the generation of electricity.”

Strauss doesn’t believe that wood pellets can completely replace coal, however he does think they can function as a “transition fuel… taking us from a heavily geologically carbonized energy sector to a future in which combustion of fuels made from geologic carbon is no longer allowed.”

Moomaw contends that the “transition argument is the same one that fracked natural gas producers make.” He doesn’t think biomass should be classified as a “zero carbon” source such as solar, since if “solar were being used and the trees were left standing to continue removing CO2 from the atmosphere, we would be closer to meeting our climate goals.”

Instead of a transition, Moomaw believes that wood bioenergy is a “diversion from getting to a low carbon future.”

Deforestation

The FutureMetrics white paper takes issue with the scientists’ claim that increasing biomass energy will “promote deforestation.”

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, deforestation is defined as “the permanent destruction of forests in order to make the land available for other uses.”

Strauss doesn’t see that happening in the U.S. “The sustainability criteria that regulate the use of industrial wood pellets exclude any wood from logging that is part of land use change,” he said.

His white paper counters that “no one in the renewable energy sector…would support any policy that promotes the loss of forests and the important carbon sinking function they perform.”

To the contrary, Strauss writes that “the forests are not shrinking. In both the Atlantic and Gulf regions total inventories have increased significantly.”

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph.D., Chief Scientist of the Geos Institute, said many in the bioenergy and logging industry don’t make a distinction between monoculture tree plantations and diverse natural forests. He said that while industry representatives, such as Strauss, tend to see “forests as cover only, an ecologist sees forest quality.”

“A tree farm is not a forest,” said DellaSala. “It’s grown for one reason, fiber. It’s a biologically deficient and overly simplistic system.”

Old Growth

The scientists’ letter warns that “large areas of American forests including old growth trees are being cleared for pellets.”

Strauss responded that he is “unaware of any logging operations in ‘old growth’ forests,” though many conservation groups have presented evidence to the contrary.

However, his paper states, “when a stand is mature, it is time for the landowner to harvest their crop.”

He asserts that at a certain age, the carbon sequestration of forests is reduced, explaining that “forests reach a growth and mortality equilibrium after which the net carbon stock remains constant.”

Moomaw acknowledges that “individual trees absorb the most carbon dioxide at the mid-point in their growth cycle.” However, he said that “mature trees add girth even when they are no longer growing taller,” continuing to absorb more carbon dioxide in the process.

A study published in Nature in 2014 found that “old trees do not act simply as senescent carbon reservoirs but actively fix large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees.”

Further, Moomaw said that even once a tree dies, some of the carbon “ends up in forest soils where it remains sequestered for a very long time.”

There is more to the importance of a mature forest than its ability to store carbon, according to Moomaw. Mature forests are the major source of biodiversity on land, purifying air and water, moderating temperatures, and providing flood control.

Competition

Forest bioenergy “competes with land for other forest products including timber, paper and agriculture,” which results in more logging, according to the scientists’ letter.

However, Strauss points out that the pulp and paper industry has declined significantly over recent years, which means more wood is available for bioenergy.

“Wood pellets are produced from the same feedstock that makes paper,” said Strauss.

This pulpwood includes the tops of trees, as well as whole trees not able to be used for sawlogs, including small trees, crooked and/or knotty trees, trees with fungus or killed by insects.

Tree branches and other logging residue are also used for bioenergy. This high-nutrient material is typically left to decompose on the forest floor in eastern forests, and burned in open-air slash piles in western forests.

However, it’s these dead trees and downed woody debris that is “exactly what makes a forest a forest and not a plantation,” according to Dellasala.

“There’s no life in forests that have had this removed,” he said. “It becomes a wasteland for fiber and not biodiversity.”

Wildfire

Strauss’ paper also states that logging for bioenergy “mitigates wildfire risk.”

Dellasala replied that “thinning, if done properly, can reduce fire intensity under average fire weather, but not in extreme fire weather.” Meaning that thinning has little effect on large wildfires, which studies have concluded are more a result of high temperatures, drought, and winds than fuel levels.

Dellasala also points out that even in the cases in which thinning is effective, logging would have to happen every ten years or so to maintain reduced fuel levels, which would be expensive and harmful to soils, watersheds, and wildlife.

Paper vs. Bioenergy

Disagreements abound in regards to the benefits and drawbacks of bioenergy.

However, when it comes to forest use, Strauss reminds us that the wood used for pellets and bioenergy is a “very small proportion of the total demand for wood.”

In fact, he is confused by the uproar of scientists and environmental groups against logging for bioenergy compared to logging for other forest products.

Strauss asks, “where is the outcry over the harvest of trees to make newsprint, packaging, toilet paper?”

3 comments

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  • I suggest that Josh’s article is a reasonably “fair and balanced” story compared to what we usually find in web sites that are by and large against biomass. But, I will comment on some parts of the story.

    The article says, “A study published in Nature in 2014 found that ‘old trees do not act simply as senescent carbon reservoirs but actively fix large amounts of carbon compared to smaller trees.’”

    Some old trees can continue to grow for centuries. But many species simply don’t have long lives- especially early succession species in the Northeast, such as white and grey birch, pin cherry, poplar and others. White pine may live for centuries and continue growing but what’s often forgotten is that many large pine have internal rot which are barely noticed from the outside by people without significant forestry experience so though they may be growing, these pines with rot may not be increasing their carbon storage and often are losing carbon. Red oaks may also live for centuries and they tend to not rot unless damaged. Though biomass type harvests in some parts of America are clearcuts- this is not so common in southern New England, where foresters would prefer to remove those short lived species and retain long lived trees which are less likely to rot- including white pine and red oak. Pines with large dead branches are more likely to have rot, so a skilled forester will removed those. Foresters and forest owners who want long term economic productivity will leave high quality, long lived trees for economic reasons, while secondarily benefiting all of us by storing carbon.

    The article says, “Further, Moomaw said that even once a tree dies, some of the carbon ‘ends up in forest soils where it remains sequestered for a very long time.’”

    Well, not really, very little ends up in the soil. Most dead wood rots within a decade- releasing carbon. It’s certainly good to leave some dead wood to enhance soil structure and for wildlife values but it really is only “some” not most of the carbon that stays in the soil. In Massachusetts, the biomass regs require a fair amount of “woody debris” to be left on the site. More might be better but it’s not a perfect world- and the loss of nutrients is actually rather trivial if the site is not clearcut (such as what happens to build a solar farm).

    And the article says, “There is more to the importance of a mature forest than its ability to store carbon, according to Moomaw. Mature forests are the major source of biodiversity on land, purifying air and water, moderating temperatures, and providing flood control.”

    Yes, forest owners and their foresters and the logging industry already know this. If he’s implying good forestry work which includes some biomass harvesting is going to damage those values, then he’s not aware of what’s really going on out there. I might add that until a movement arose in Massachusetts against biomass, Mr. Moomaw was very much in favor of biomass. He wrote a letter to the company which wanted to build a 50 MW biomass facility in Greenfield, MA indicating his strong support. Shortly after that, he was strongly influenced by rabid forestry haters and he changed his mind.

    And the article says, “However, it’s these dead trees and downed woody debris that is ‘exactly what makes a forest a forest and not a plantation,’ according to Dellasala. ‘There’s no life in forests that have had this removed,’ he said. ‘It becomes a wasteland for fiber and not biodiversity.’”

    Yes, good foresters understand this which is why we leave most standing dead trees (snags) and some large and small “woody debris” because it’s required by regulation and because much breaks off “whole trees” being skidded out of the forest AND because good loggers will return slash to the forest which piles up in the log landing. Most harvesting for biomass in southern New England is part of long term forest management. Most of this woodland had been high graded so the forests are filled with damaged trees and low vigor trees of low value species- nothing like the old growth forests when the pioneers arrived centuries ago. With good silvicultural practices, include some wood being harvested for biomass, the forests will look MORE like those old growth forests with long lived species which are healthier and with good form, which will aid the forest owner in retaining the forest as a forest. Clearing such forests for solar and wind farms, however, are extremely destructive to ecological values, something often forgotten.
    Joe

    Like

  • Thanks for your assessment. I think it’s important for people to understand the various perspectives on this issue

    Like

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