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The Carbon Neutral Controversy Surrounding Biomass

A controversial biomass amendment added to the Senate's energy bill would make the burning of wood for energy purposes a renewable source of energy. While the proposal has broad, bipartisan Congressional support, many groups oppose it.
October 6, 2016, 10am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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"The proposal not to count carbon from biomass is the work of Maine’s two senators — Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent — who introduced it into the Senate version of the energy bill passed earlier this year," writes Eduardo Porter, Economic Scene columnist for The New York Times.

“Biomass energy is sustainable, responsible, renewable, and economically significant as an energy source, and many states, including Maine, are already relying on biomass to meet their renewable energy goals,” stated Senator Susan Collins in a Feb. 3, 2016 press release on the passage of S.Amdt. 3140 by voice vote. 

Opponents to the amendment, which is not in the House version of the energy bill, include public health advocates [PDF] concerned about both criteria pollutants and carbon emissions, scientists concerned with deforestation, as well as many environmental groups.

The amendment "would give a free pass to the biomass industry to pollute by allowing carbon emissions from power plants burning forest biomass - chipped up branches, limbs, and whole trees - to go unregulated, wrote Sami Yassa for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It would set a dangerous precedent of legislating science by forcing EPA to use fundamentally flawed carbon accounting and would set back our efforts to fight climate change."

In a comparison of biofuel to fossil fuel, a 2010 report even concluded that carbon emissions from biomass would slightly exceed those from coal by 2050, according to the Associated Press. 

According to a new analysis by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI) released Oct. 3, burning wood for electricity will undermine Clean Power Plan, currently in litigation.

According to a model by the Energy Information Administration, if President Obama's Clean Power Plan was allowed to consider biomass, there would be a "rush to build more biomass generators," writes Porter. Under one EIA scenario, "it would require clear-cutting six million to eight million acres of forest," according to PFPI.

"[T]he biomass proposal could become law within weeks," adds Porter. "Even if it fails to make it through, similar language has been attached to appropriations bills for the Interior Department, passed by both chambers and now undergoing reconciliation."

The energy bill, S.2012 - North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2016, dubbed the Energy Policy Modernization Act, is "the first major update to the nation’s energy policy in eight years," writes Alejandro Dávila Fragoso, climate reporter for Think Progress.

Hat tip to Doug Bevington 
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Published on Tuesday, October 4, 2016 in The New York Times
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