[EXCLUSIVE] Where Do Environmental Groups Stand on Bioenergy?
– by Josh Schlossberg, The Biomass Monitor
One-quarter of renewable energy in the U.S. in 2015 came from wind (21%) and solar (6%), according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, 43% was from generated from bioenergy, combusting trees, crops, manure, and trash for electricity and/or heat, or converting these materials into liquid transportation fuels.
So where do the nation’s largest and most influential environmental groups stand on bioenergy, the largest source of renewables?
The Biomass Monitor contacted representatives for the following organizations (listed alphabetically) to determine their stances on biomass power and heating, liquid biofuels for transportation, and trash incineration: 350*, Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Working Group, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, National Wildlife Federation*, Natural Resources Defense Council, Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, and Stand (formerly Forest Ethics).
*350 and National Wildlife Federation representatives didn’t respond to repeated inquiries, so organizational platforms are based on information found online.
350 is one of the nation’s leading environmental groups working on climate change, with its advocacy focused on transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Since 80% of the U.S.’ energy consumption is generated from fossil fuels, 350’s vision involves a significant increase in renewable energy. With nearly half of renewables consisting of bioenergy, 350’s position is extremely relevant.
The organization’s Break Free From Fossil Fuels campaign declares the need to “keep coal, oil and gas in the ground and accelerate the just transition to 100% renewable energy,” yet includes no specific mention of bioenergy.
A search for the term “biomass” on 350’s website brings up several blog posts related to bioenergy from around the world, but no platform on the energy source.
K.C. Golden is Board Chair of 350. In 2013, as Senior Policy Advisor to Climate Solutions, Golden testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, saying: “Wind, waves, biomass, and hydropower are all solar-derived energy sources. Technology for converting these resources to usable heat and electricity is widely available now, at costs that are already competitive with fossil fuels in many applications.”
When speaking of the development of renewable energy sources in the Pacific Northwest, Golden alluded to bioenergy: “These historic and new clean energy commitments are vital to the region’s economy. They support our existing manufacturing and industrial base, including global leaders in aviation, wood products, and materials.”
Golden also testified that “the availability and feasibility of climate solutions at scale is thoroughly documented,” referring to a document entitled “Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy,” which advocates for various forms of bioenergy.
Whether Golden’s position on bioenergy on behalf of Climate Solutions is shared by 350 is unclear.
Center for Biological Diversity
Center for Biological Diversity doesn’t have a “formal stance on bioenergy,” according to Kevin Bundy, Senior Attorney. However, the organization works on getting “government officials and industry proponents to confront [the] climate and ecological realities,” of bioenergy, which has led CBD to “oppose a number of regulatory exemptions, subsidies, and specific facilities.”
CBD doesn’t categorically oppose all forms of bioenergy, however Bundy explains that “pretty much all of the bioenergy proposals we’ve seen come along with unacceptable adverse impacts, including impacts to the climate, forest ecology, land use, air quality, public health, and even food security.”
While the carbon neutrality of bioenergy “can never be assumed,” Bundy allows that a biomass facility’s carbon emissions might theoretically be “offset by new growth or avoided decomposition in a relatively short amount of time.” Despite this possibility, he hasn’t seen an on-the-ground example of this.
Not only do biomass power facilities and trash incinerators “emit huge quantities of greenhouse gases,” they also “present serious concerns with respect to local air pollution.”
While acknowledging the relative efficiency improvements of combined heat and power biomass facilities compared to stand alone electric facilities, Bundy says “climate and air quality concerns remain.”
Residential wood heating can also “result in serious air quality problems.”
When it comes to ethanol, Bundy says most forms, from corn ethanol to advanced biofuels, don’t “appear to reliably reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particularly when land use changes are taken into account.”
Environmental Working Group
Environmental Working Group (EWG) “supports the development of sustainable biofuels that reduce carbon pollution without damaging air and water quality,” according to Emily Cassidy, research analyst for the organization.
Wary of corn ethanol, EWG believes the “most promising biofuels are made from cellulosic and waste feedstocks.”
The organization pushes for a reform of the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which mandates a percentage of biofuels added to conventional gasoline, to “prevent further environmental destruction from corn ethanol and to ensure fuels made from waste and cellulosic feedstocks are being properly incentivized.”
So far, Cassidy says the RFS has mostly encouraged corn ethanol production that “has incentivized farmers to plow up grasslands and wetlands to grow more corn.”
Regarding air pollution, EWG’s position is that “the production and use of corn ethanol generates more harmful air pollutants such as particulate matter and ozone than straight petroleum.”
While acknowledging that all forms of energy—from coal to wind—require tradeoffs in land use, Cassidy says that, “bioenergy, especially corn ethanol, is one of the most land-intensive forms of energy we use on a daily basis.”
On the trash front, EWG believes that “using trash for fuel has great potential to reduce carbon pollution from transportation.”
EWG and 10 other environmental groups are signatories to a document called “Principles for Sustainable Biomass,” which outlines the specific instances in which the organizations would support tax incentives and other policies to generate more biomass energy.
“Biomass should be grown, sourced, and utilized only in appropriate scales, places, and manners,” according to the document. It would also place enforceable limits on what types of biomass sources and facilities can be incentivized.”
EWG and the other signatories want to ensure that “public biomass incentives protect core environmental values and genuinely reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The types of biomass energy they would endorse would be “energy efficient” and “require sustainable procurement.”
Friends of the Earth
Friends of the Earth (FOE) “does not believe that we can use bioenergy on the large scale contemplated by the bioenergy industry without creating massive ecological impacts, especially on forests.”
Michelle Chan, Vice President of Programs for Friends of the Earth, explains that corn ethanol, the vast majority of liquid biofuels in the U.S., “relies on the chemical-intensive industrial monocultures that epitomize some of the worst aspects of our agriculture system.” She adds that FOE has “has successfully fought efforts in the U.S. to allow palm oil to qualify as under the Renewable Fuels Standard.”
Chan also cautions “many of the so-called advanced biofuels would be even worse” than corn ethanol, since they often utilize the “same unsustainable agricultural models.” Further, the use of genetically engineered crops and organisms “pose[s] unacceptable levels of environmental risk.”
FOE is a signatory to the “Principles for Sustainable Biomass” document supporting tax incentives for certain forms of bioenergy.
“Currently, policies that incentivize bioenergy production have negative effects on the climate and natural ecosystems, particularly forests, primarily because most land is managed unsustainably,” according to Daniel Brindis, Greenpeace USA’s Senior Campaigner for Forests.
“Bioenergy can only be ecologically sound if it comes from responsible and sustainable sources, farming practices and land use.”
Greenpeace calls for “extreme caution” when it comes to policies expanding the use of bioenergy. It only supports bioenergy that doesn’t “further destroy or degrade ecosystems…[that] maintains or enhances soil fertility and carbon stocks, and avoids competition with food, feed and materials production.”
When it comes to large-scale bioenergy, there are “few instances” in which it’s sustainable, says Brindis. Corn ethanol and municipal solid waste incineration do “not score well” either, though biogas capture from waste “can be done responsibly.”
The types of bioenergy Greenpeace is most likely to support include: sewage sludge, black liquor from paper mills, methane capture at landfills, and used cooking oil.
“Under very specific narrow conditions and uses,” Greenpeace may support the use of the following sources to generate bioenergy: agricultural residues, tree plantation thinnings, short rotation, fast-growing tree coppicing, sawmill residues, straw, manure, tallow, pits and shells, demolition wood, palm kernel shell, palm oil effluent, and wet municipal organic waste.
Greenpeace believes that policies shouldn’t automatically assume carbon neutrality for bioenergy as they often leave out emissions from land use change. The only time biomass can be carbon neutral is if its “net direct and indirect emissions are taken into account.”
Greenpeace is a signatory to “Principles for Sustainable Biomass.”
National Wildlife Federation
National Wildlife Federation’s (NWF) Sustainable Bioenergy webpage establishes the organization’s perspective on bioenergy.
NWF believes that biofuels and bioenergy “can be used to produce some of our electricity and liquid fuels, and should be part of the solution to global warming pollution.” The group is “involved in a number of initiatives to ensure that the next generation of biofuels and biomass energy can be used to help curb global warming, while produced in a sustainable manner.”
Collaborating with the forest products industry allows NWF to “identify the proper balance between forest-derived woody biomass fuel and sustainable forest management.”
NWF’s most comprehensive document on the subject is called Growing A Green Energy Future: A Primer and Vision for Sustainable Biomass Energy.
While wary of first generation biofuels, such as corn ethanol, NWF states that it has “created a technical foundation” for more advanced biofuels. This next generation of biofuel has the “potential to deliver much higher levels of benefits than those derived from grain crops.”
NWF is optimistic of the climate benefits of some forms of bioenergy. “When done right, biomass for energy achieves a balance or even a net gain of carbon dioxide taken in by plants, versus the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses released in production and combustion.”
However, the organization also has its critique, saying, “when biomass energy is done wrong, it can release more greenhouse gases than are absorbed by subsequent biomass crops, just as with corn and soy.”
NWF supports some uses of biomass to generate electricity, such as beetle-killed forests, saying, “a one-time harvest of dead trees may supply fuel for biomass power plants or other energy uses for 25 years.”
Biomass from “thinning operations, logging and wood processing may have huge potential for bioenergy production,” but only when “harvested sustainably.”
So far as utilizing trash for energy, NWF supports “technology to produce energy from mixed, post recycled, waste streams.”
NWF points out that economic security is vital for the future expansion of bioenergy, explaining that “a secure market for biomass for fuels and/or power must be developed for the long term in order to drive the investments needed to develop the industry.”
The Renewable Fuels Standard helps achieve this goal, as would a federal Renewable Electricity Standard, which NWF says is “needed to create a secure market for biomass for power and heat.”
When it comes to liquid biofuels, NWF estimates that under the “most aggressive scenarios,” biomass may make up “up to a third of U.S. transportation fuel use.”
NWF signed on to the “Principles for Sustainable Biomass.”
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
NRDC’s work on bioenergy “focuses primarily on the use of biomass originating in forests for electricity generation,” according to Sasha Stashwick, Senior Advocate, Energy & Transportation and Food & Agriculture Programs.
NRDC teamed up with North Carolina-based Dogwood Alliance to launch the “Our Forests Aren’t Fuel” campaign, focused primarily on opposing logging of southeastern U.S. forests to convert into wood pellets to fuel U.K. biomass power facilities.
Stashwick points to research concluding that “most forest biomass is not carbon neutral and that burning trees in power plants increases carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels for many decades, anywhere from 35 to 100 years or more.”
“In some instances,” NRDC believes that “industrial waste, such as black liquor, can be low-carbon sources of bioenergy.”
Additionally, some fast-growing energy crops “have the potential to reduce net carbon emissions within a relatively short timeframe.”
Stashwick says corn ethanol helped with the transition away from fossil fuels, “but it came at an extremely high environmental cost to our soils and watersheds, and too often failed to deliver promised emissions reductions.”
NRDC “believes low-carbon liquid fuels are an essential component of the effort to reduce fossil fuel use in the transportation sector,” mostly for aviation and “heavy duty transportation sectors” where electricity can’t be used.
However, for NRDC to support these biofuels, they must provide carbon emission reductions and other sustainability standards, such as limiting “adverse impacts on food security, land, water, air, wildlife, and local communities.”
The organization’s 2013 Biomass Platform cautions about logging whole trees for stand-alone biomass energy facilities, while accepting that “small-scale use of wood waste and residues for energy could play a role in addressing future energy needs.”
NRDC supports the “Principles for Sustainable Biomass.”
Concerning public health, NRDC believes that “burning biomass for electricity generates dangerous air pollution.”
NRDC opposes the use of municipal solid waste for energy production.
Partnership for Policy Integrity
While not a large environmental group, Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) is an advocacy organization that has worked closely with NRDC over the years–including lobbying with the organization in Washington, D.C.–and has become the unofficial media spokesperson for Big Green’s “sustainable biomass” agenda.
Headed by Mary Booth and employing several staff in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., the organization has lobbied against biomass power while advocating for taxpayer subsidies for combined heat and power and biomass heating.
In its 2012 report Biomass Energy in Pennsylvania: Implications for Air Quality, Carbon Emissions, and Forests, PFPI wrote: “Large electricity-only biomass facilities are highly inefficient and polluting. Pennsylvania policy- makers should withhold state-funded grants and loans from such facilities, and should reform Pennsylvania’s Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard to restrict eligibility for alternative energy credits to higher efficiency combined heat and power facilities, as Massachusetts has done. State grants and loans should be restricted to small facilities that employ the best emissions controls available.”
In 2010, PFPI, along with several other mainstream Massachusetts environmental groups refused to support a statewide ballot initiative that would’ve removed all state subsidies for biomass energy. The ballot measure, which collected enough signatures to make the ballot, and was widely credited as the centerpiece of a grassroots campaign to call attention to the impacts of biomass energy in the state, was withdrawn at the last moment by leadership.
Over the next year, the Massachusetts Department of Energy went on to remove subsidies from stand alone biomass power facilities while granting ongoing subsidies for combined heat and power and biomass heating.
In April 2016, Booth was quoted in the Bangor Daily News as supporting the climate benefits of combined heat and power biomass energy, while continuing to staunchly oppose stand alone biomass power.
“This is the sleeping giant that the Baker administration should really stay away from awakening,” said activist Mary Booth, who lives in western Massachusetts and was one of the leaders of the movement that led to the new rules.
Only combined heat and power biomass facilities, she said, are efficient enough to be considered renewable resources that do not add enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to contribute significantly to climate change.
Rainforest Action Network
Rainforest Action Network has “not developed any formal positions” on biomass energy from forests or other forms of bioenergy, according to Christopher Herrera, Director of Communications.
Herrera says the organization has partnered with organizations working on bioenergy in some instances, however RAN is “focused on continuing to pressure the financial industry to abandon support for extreme fossil fuel extraction projects and the national effort to end the extraction of fossil fuels on public lands.”
Since the opposition to fossil fuels implies support for renewable energy, RAN’s position on the single largest source of renewables is significant.
Jodie Evans, member of RAN’s board of directors and co-founder of Code Pink, wrote a piece in March 2016 entitled “Building a Local Peace Economy: We Have the Power.” In the article, Evans wrote: “In most states, there is the option to switch electric providers to buy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass, rather than coal, gas, oil and nuclear.”
Board member Michael Northrop is Program Director for the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund has provided grants to various organizations and campaigns promoting biomass energy, including 25x’25.
In a September 2014 article in the Huffington Post entitled “Forging a Climate Agreement May Have Just Gotten Easier”, Northrop wrote: “Getting to carbon neutral in the urban built environment is a two-step process…The second step is to provide clean electricity and hot water, ideally from onsite renewable energy systems (solar, wind, geothermal, biomass).”
It’s unclear whether Evans’ and Northrop’s statements on bioenergy reflect the position of RAN as an organization or if they are merely personal opinions.
Sierra Club Climate Policy Director Liz Perera says that many claims of sustainability and carbon neutrality for bioenergy are “untrue.”
“Air pollution, water pollution, land degradation, health impacts, and the increased direct and indirect emissions of greenhouse gases are all serious risks that must be considered with bioenergy.”
“While small-scale biomass operations might show greenhouse gas neutrality over a period of decades,” larger scale bioenergy carries more baggage.
Sierra Club asserts that “any biomass included in Clean Power Plan implementation must have include extremely strict greenhouse gas accounting mechanisms.”
Perera brings up “threats to public health by releasing fine particulate pollution into the air.”
Sierra Club signed on to NRDC’s 2013 “Biomass Platform” opposing biomass electricity from whole trees and supporting small-scale biomass from wood waste and residues.
Stand (formerly Forest Ethics)
“Bioenergy is bad for forests, fish and wildlife, and biodiversity,” says Jim Ace, Healthy Forest Campaigner for Stand. “Natural forests cannot meet the soaring global demand for fuel for power.”
Stand “opposes burning forests for electricity” due to its forest and climate impacts, saying, “burning wood for energy pumps more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural gas and coal.”
The organization won’t support “biomass projects that have a net negative impact on the health of local communities, forests, fish and wildlife, air and water quality, and the climate.”
However, Ace points to research suggesting that “if sawmill residuals are exclusively used, [biomass energy] may be closer to ‘carbon neutral.’”
Stand’s position on liquid biofuels is that “the widespread conversion of native forests and croplands for biofuels production threatens both biodiversity and human food supplies.”
Stand signed on to NRDC’s 2013 “Biomass Platform” opposing biomass electricity from whole trees and supporting small-scale biomass from wood waste and residues.
Each of the ten large environmental organizations most active on bioenergy critique some forms of bioenergy (mostly whole trees for biomass electricity, aka biomass power and corn ethanol), while supporting or having no position on the majority of biomass energy (commercial, industrial, and residential heating).
Liquid transportation fuels make up of 27% of bioenergy in the U.S., nearly all of which is sourced from corn.
Biomass power generates 11% of bioenergy in the U.S., sourced from manufacturing residues, post-consumer waste, urban and agricultural wood waste, and thinnings and residues from logging operations, mostly tree tops and limbs.
While biomass power facilities will burn whole trees—typically small, crooked, knotty, or rotten trees unsuitable for lumber production—based on field observations and conversations with foresters and loggers, whole trees likely only make up a fraction of the fuel source.
Still, the vast majority of the public debate and news coverage around bioenergy focuses on the opposition by large environmental organizations to burning whole trees for biomass electricity and concerns with an expansion of this practice.
While several of the profiled organizations bring up concerns with air pollution, only Center for Biological Diversity mentions specific issues with wood heating (62% of bioenergy), which typically employs less pollution controls than biomass power facilities, and in the case of residential, school and hospital heating, exposes more people to air emissions.