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EPA Fiddles While Forests Burn

May 16, 2011

EPA is fiddling while forests burn when it proposes to do nothing for the next three years to regulate “biogenic CO2” – including the CO2 emissions produced by burning forest biomass. Instead, it will convene a panel of experts to review whether or not there are carbon benefits to be gained from using wood and other biofuels for energy production. This decision is taken in response to complaints received from the National Alliance of Forest Owners (“NAFO”), and from its Senate and House champions, after intense lobbying.

NAFO claims that forest biomass is “carbon neutral:” the amount of CO2 emitted when forest biomass is burned is equal to the amount of CO2 taken up, or ‘sequestered’ by the biomass during its growth. Forest biomass sounds so harmless – humans have burned wood for centuries.

Carbon neutral, however, does not mean climate neutral. A tree does not grow back at the same rate it burns. Over the years it takes forest biomass to grow, it may sequester the same amount of CO2 it will produce when burned, but the burning takes minutes; the growing takes years.

On top of this problem of immediate emissions versus slow sequestration, forest biomass – mostly green forest biomass– turns out to be a highly inefficient fuel. Filled with water, it burns cool, slow and dirty. Measured at the stack, burning even bone-dry wood yields 150 percent of the CO2 emitted from burning coal per kilowatt-hour of energy produced. Even when ‘net emissions’ are calculated – that is when the eventual regrowth CO2 uptake is factored in – forest biomass combustion produces more CO2 emissions than burning coal for energy.

By backing away from its former decision to regulate biogenic CO2 emissions including the CO2 generated by EGUs burning green forest biomass, EPA institutes a policy that encourages the use of this fuel. David Tenney, NAFO’s CEO, recently predicted that wood to electricity facilities are expected to be a central component of renewable fuel portfolios across the country, and that total capacity is expected to increase four-fold during the next decade.

Increased incentives to burn forests means increased incentives to clear forested land that has been a vital carbon ‘sink’ for centuries. And, science tells us, that land use change itself adds to the problem. Clear cutting exposes soils that themselves release large amounts of stored CO2, and land that was in mixed old-wood forest and is now in other uses, sequesters less CO2 per acre.

And then there are the “traditional” air pollutants released when wood is burned – sulfur, ozone-forming NOx and volatile organic compounds, as well as hazardous air pollutants, including carcinogenic dioxins. These too are worse per kilowatt-hour than burning coal. The Agency’s tacit encouragement of more green wood burning clearly has the potential to increase emissions of these air pollutants as well.

Imagine, then, a thousand forests burning at once, all in the name of CO2 reduction. That’s the very obvious result of this extremely bad decision. EPA’s call to study the issue would be amusing – think of an EPA scientist standing in the middle of a forest fire asking: “Is this producing smoke?” – if it weren’t so clearly devastating to the climate, our air quality and our quality of life. And, if it weren’t occurring exactly when international experts are telling us we most need almost immediate deep reductions in CO2 to avoid the very worst consequences of climate change.

No joke — EPA’s recent decision evokes images of fiddling while Rome burns.

P.S. Hilary Price got it just right, in this cartoon from Rhymes with Orange:

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