The extreme unwisdom of burning forests for fuel
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A bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Congress is pressing hard to advance a dangerously destructive environmental policy. It would require the Environmental Protection Agency to define biomass—energy obtained from wood-- as a carbon-neutral, renewable fuel, like solar power and wind. The EPA and its Science Advisory Board are opposed. They should be.

The idea is to kindle a mass market in the incineration of forests to generate electricity. If it succeeds, biomass technologies will be eligible for new funding in the race inspired by the 2015 Paris Agreement toward carbon-neutral fuels. Representatives of forest-rich states seek to wedge their desired mandate into three major bills now pending before Congress. One, the North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act, is up for reconciliation now: Only the Senate bill includes the provision.  

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If this move becomes national policy, it will displace decades of international efforts to reduce forest loss from the use of wood for fuel, inviting emulation world-wide. Biomass combustion has been a source of serious atmospheric pollution. It releases 150 percent more greenhouse gases per unit of electricity than coal; and 400 times more than natural gas.  Forest-destruction generates a double loss: Forests are the earth’s largest terrestrial carbon sinks. As policy analyst Mary S. Booth observes, “From the atmosphere’s point of view, decreasing a carbon sink has the same effect as increasing pollution from another source.”

Proponents claim that biomass combustion would be carbon-neutral: While forests’  combustion would release their carbon dioxide stores, newly-planted trees would restore carbon sinks in a repeating cycle.

Opponents respond that the carbon sinks that new trees provide could not occupy the same time-frame as the atmospheric carbon that would be released. The lag is non-trivial: Saplings take 40 to 50 years to absorb the carbon released by mature trees, leaving their heat-trapping gases in the air. A study commissioned by Massachusetts caused the state to abandon biomass subsidies for this cause.

But the most pervasive mistake the biomass enticement represents is that it is framed by a carbon-centric mindset that ignores the essential relationship between forests and the hydrological and energy cycles. Forests are not merely convenient closets for carbon storage. An outpouring of international research has been discovering and validating the unique, irreplaceable influence of forests on the natural regulation of the earth’s climate through their generation of the land-atmosphere circulation of water and their maintenance of the patterns that distribute solar energy, with coolant effects.  Forests play these interdependent roles through the atmospheric transport of moisture across land masses at regional and continental scales; the evapotranspiration of vast quantities of water from the earth’s surface to the lower atmospheric boundary layer, where liquid water is converted to rain and snow; the filtration and storage of moisture, which forests’ diverse structures pull from the atmosphere and guide underground, thereby mitigating drought and moderating floods; and the modulation of solar energy, through the natural cooling systems that forests are.

Until forests’ crucial roles in the generation of planetary well-being can be reliably handed off to other natural or humanly-designed agents, it will be dangerous-- and perverse beyond measure-- to destroy forest placement and function in the misguided production of yet another heat-trapping fuel. Because such a move by the United States would put the Paris Agreement at grave risk, it is hard to imagine a worse signal to send-- or a worse time to send it.

If need be, the President should veto any bill that would cripple the unique capabilities of forests, on which all life depends.

Jane Maslow Cohen is a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Cindy E. Morris is a senior scientist at the French National Agricultural Research Institute (INRA) in Avignon and an Affiliate Professor at Montana State University in Bozeman. Both belong to an international science network that studies the interaction of landscapes with atmospheric processes.


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