Bogus biomass amendment spotlights energy bill’s disturbing flaws
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It's no accident that the federal energy bill is rumored to be one of the few pieces of legislation under consideration for a potential lame duck session after the November elections. This period between Election Day and January, when new lawmakers arrive, is when Congress often tries to legislate on controversial issues to avoid public scrutiny.    

The energy bill is a perfect candidate for the lame duck because, at over 1,000 pages combined, it is a Frankenstein bill that mixes a few promising energy-conservation programs with industry-friendly regulatory give-aways that would hurt our environment. 

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One of the most harmful provisions is the “biomass carbon neutrality” amendment in the Senate energy bill. The logging industry and its allies have spent millions of dollars to lobby for this amendment, which will benefit timber interests, destroy forests, and wreak havoc on our efforts to fight climate change.

Unfortunately, the public in general knows nothing about this provision or the energy bill more generally beyond its name, as the election circus continues to grab the headlines.

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The House bill, particularly, is an environmental disaster, riddled with provisions pushed by the coal, oil and gas industries that would undermine the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other landmark environmental laws.

The Senate bill is better than its sister House bill but still has several highly problematic measures, including provisions to expedite the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s approval of liquefied natural gas export terminals, preventing the agency from thoroughly evaluating alternatives that avoid the expansion of dangerously polluting hydraulic fracturing.

But the worst of the current energy bill provisions is the “biomass carbon neutrality” amendment.

Tellingly, Senate Energy Chairman Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback The Memo: Concern over shutdown grows in Trump World Kaine to force Senate to hold rare Saturday session amid shutdown MORE (R-Alaska) snuck this amendment into the bill during a floor voice vote that included about a dozen other mostly uncontroversial amendments. There were no debates, no hearings, and no public discussion of what this provision would do. 

This lack of democratic process leads precisely to the absurdity of the biomass amendment substance as it literally mandates that the Environmental Protection Agency and all other government entities consider the use of biomass as a power source to be “carbon neutral.”  This flies in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that biomass power plants – those that utilize wood and other plant matter – emit three to four times more carbon dioxide as natural gas and 50 percent more carbon dioxide than coal, per megawatt of electricity produced.

The biomass amendment would ignore the climate pollution from burning trees, under the requirement that agencies adopt policies that both encourage additional bioenergy development and “reflect the carbon-neutrality of forest bioenergy.” This provision sets a dangerous and surreal precedent for all climate science by proposing fundamentally flawed carbon accounting via federal legislation. 

Biomass plants are generally dirty because they are markedly inefficient. One recent report found that per megawatt-hour, a biomass power plant employing “best available control technology” emits more nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide than a modern coal plant of the same size. 

Significantly, an EPA science advisory board is already actively looking at the issue, which everyone acknowledges is much more complex than robotic utterances of “carbon neutrality.”  EPA’s scientists are nearing the end of their comprehensive review of the issue, and Congress should not try to preempt the issue by legislating what it thinks the science should say.

Ignoring pollution from biomass combustion would undermine the both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Power Plan, as well as the commitments President Obama made on behalf of the United States under the Paris Climate Agreement.

With truly zero-carbon, renewable energy sources available to us, we should not be focusing on burning biomass as a strategy for dealing with climate change.  We certainly should not be expanding biomass energy operations. It will be impossible to have any positive discussion about the energy bill if Congressional leaders insist in creating false realities about burning forests for fuel. 

Snape is a practitioner in residence at American University’s Washington College of Law and senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. Stephanie Kurose is a legal fellow at the Center for Biological Diversity and a 2015 graduate of the Washington College of Law.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.