Enviros blast ‘potentially harmful’ Vilsack letter

Source: Brittany Patterson, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2016

American forests are a sustainable source of biomass and can reduce climate-change-causing emissions, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told U.K. energy leaders earlier this year.

In a letter obtained by ClimateWire, Vilsak told the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for energy and climate change, Amber Rudd, “Biomass generation provides significant greenhouse gas benefits to the UK, due to reduced fossil fuel combustion.”

“Some media outlets and non-governmental organizations have questioned the ability of southern U.S. forest areas to supply sustainable biomass to the United Kingdom (UK) and the European Union (EU),” the March 28 letter states. “On the contrary, the U.S. wood pellet industry increases our forested area, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and improves U.S. forest management practices.”

Vilsack’s letter represents a break with the messaging coming out of other federal agencies, namely U.S. EPA, which has been slow to settle on a cohesive biomass policy. The White House has also previously indicated it does not support the claim that burning wood for energy results in net-zero carbon emissions (ClimateWire, July 7, 2015).

The issue of whether biomass can be considered a carbon-neutral renewable energy source has deeply divided the forest industry and some environmental groups. A lack of U.S. policy on the matter came to a head this spring when the Senate passed an amendment in the bipartisan energy bill that calls on EPA as well as the Agriculture and Energy departments to craft a coordinated policy on biomass that reflects “the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy” (ClimateWire, April 21).

That came after the EPA Science Advisory Board’s Biogenic Carbon Emissions Panel, which since 2011 has been reviewing the science behind the extent to which the burning of biomass results in carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, decided to send a draft report back to the panel for further review (ClimateWire, April 4).

William Schlesinger, president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and a member of EPA’s Science Advisory Board, said he thought Vilsack was probably speaking about the benefits of biomass from a markets perspective. USDA oversees the Forest Service, which uses money raised from harvesting trees to fund sustainable forestry.

However, the message received from the letter is troubling, he said.

“In my opinion, for the secretary of Agriculture to weigh in on this issue at this moment is premature and potentially harmful to the full evaluation of the science that will help us decide whether biomass is helpful to reducing carbon dioxide emissions in both short- and long-term time horizons,” he said.

When accounting for carbon emissions from the burning of biomass, the numbers depend significantly on the time frame used to do the calculations. After trees are cut down, the carbon stored inside them is released into the atmosphere when they are burned. In addition, the carbon a forest would suck up remains in the atmosphere. Once the trees are replanted and begin to grow, they start taking in carbon again and at some point accumulate all of the carbon that was released into the atmosphere when the original forest was cut down.

That scientific assumption that biomass is a renewable energy source also only works if the biomass being burned for electricity comes from residual tree trimmings and other waste scraps, many studies have found. For example, a 2014 report from the United Kingdom’s Department of Energy and Climate Change concluded that, when accounting for all land carbon stock changes, it might be possible to use U.S. biomass to meet the United Kingdom’s demand for it, but the energy required to create electricity from biomass is likely to be “significantly greater than other electricity generating technologies, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear and wind.”

The U.S. wood pellet industry exports nearly 75 percent of its stock to the United Kingdom to be burned for electricity. Currently, the United Kingdom and European Union assume biomass to be carbon-neutral. Those policies are currently under review.

In the letter, Vilsack noted, “If there is a risk of greater carbon emissions from forests in the United States, it can be attributed to the loss of forested areas from development, increasing forest health disturbances (i.e. forest fire), and the aging of our forest sink, and less so to U.S. wood biomass generation.” He went on to write that viable markets for wood raise the value of lands and encourage landowners to keep them as forests.

This is not the first time the Agriculture secretary has expressed hope that burning organic matter such as woody residuals for electricity could create additional economic incentives for public and private landowners to maintain their forested land.

Dave Tenny, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, praised Vilsack’s statements on biomass and called them “consistent throughout his tenure.”

Matt Williams, a policy officer for the U.K.-based Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who works on bioenergy, said the letter sends a worrying message. He visited North Carolina and Georgia in April with the environmental group Dogwood Alliance and a group of biomass policy experts and said he saw evidence that linked clearcutting of forests to the United Kingdom’s biomass industry.

“I would like to see my country, and the E.U. more widely, pursue forms of renewable energy that result in genuine emissions reductions,” he said. “Right now, we’re throwing money at a solution that is probably making things worse.”

A spokeswoman for USDA authenticated the letter and said that it was crafted to “provide U.K. officials with information about the sustainability of U.S. wood pellets.” An additional request for comment went unanswered.