Monday, February 08, 2016

Can Burning Forests to Power the Grid Be Carbon Neutral?  The Senate Just Said ‘Yes’

Man walking in forest (Credit: AP Photo By Jeff Barnard) Click to Enlarge.
When the first major update to the nation’s energy laws in nearly a decade began last week in the Senate, environmentalists were cautiously sympathetic to it.  The bill didn’t open new land for oil and gas drilling, coal was mostly ignored, and the Obama administration’s recent climate change policies were left unscathed.

But environmentalists around the country are now incensed over an approved amendment categorizing bioenergy as carbon neutral — a move that groups say puts forests and even portions of the Clean Power Plan at risk.

“I think it’s a very dangerous amendment,” said Kevin Bundy, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, in an interview with ThinkProgress.  “It tries to dictate that burning forests for energy won’t affect the climate, that’s what the term carbon neutral is supposed to mean and that’s just not true.  You can’t legislate away basic physics.”

Bioenergy is energy contained in living or recently living organisms.  Plants get bioenergy through photosynthesis, and animals get it by eating plants.  To use the energy found in biomass, humans have mostly turned to burning trees in a process that, like coal burning, releases the harmful carbon pollution that causes global warming.

In part, the renewable nature of plants and their capacity to sequester carbon has meant that the industry, governmental agencies, and environmentalists have been at odds over this energy’s presumed carbon neutrality.  What’s more, whether biomass is considered carbon neutral depends on many factors, including the definition of carbon neutrality, feedstock type, the type of technology used, and time frame examined.

The issue has been so contentious that for years, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on developing rules to properly quantify biomass carbon emissions from power plants using this energy source.  A decision is reportedly expected later this year.

Environmentalists say the amendment sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) interferes with the EPA’s efforts, as it explicitly tells agencies to adopt policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of forests’ bioenergy.  They also argue that it may incentivize cutting forests for energy and most importantly, undo important provisions of the Clean Power Plan that call for reductions in carbon emissions from the electricity sector through increased use of renewable sources.

If the energy bill passes, “I would expect to see a number of states that have forest resources and a lot of coal-fired power plants trying to replace coal with wood in order to comply with the EPA’s regulations,” said Bundy.  “It undermines the integrity of everything we are trying to do on climate.”

Read more at  Can Burning Forests to Power the Grid Be Carbon Neutral?  The Senate Just Said ‘Yes’

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