Forests Are New Coal in House and Senate Climate Bills

06/16/2010 09:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At least 30 million acres of America's forests could be cut down and used for fuel at US power plants if renewable fuels and biomass provisions of current Congressional climate and energy proposals aren't radically revised. This will send a massive 4.7 billion ton pulse of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that would accelerate global warming as it drastically erodes forests' ability to pull carbon out the atmosphere.

This perverse outcome stems from the glaring but largely overlooked Enron-style accounting practices being used by Congress, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state agencies to calculate carbon pollution, which falsely assume that burning biomass fuels, including trees, produces zero net carbon emissions. Close examination shows that the reverse is true: Logging and burning trees will produce a near-term surge in carbon releases -- greater than from burning coal -- while diminishing for decades the forests' ability to recapture those emissions.

EWG's analysis released today in our report - Clearcut Disaster: Carbon Loophole Threatens US Forests, is based on U.S. Department of Energy electricity sector forecasts of the likely impacts of the House-passed American Clean Energy and Security (ACES) bill.

Why trees? Increased logging is the only way to provide sufficient fuel for the predicted growth in biomass electricity generation, because the other principal sources of fuel are simply not available in quantities anywhere near adequate to meet projected demand. Major Utilities in Ohio have already proposed to "co-fire" giant coal plants with trees, and in some cases to switch their fuel entirely to "whole tree chipping." Across the country more than 120 wood burning biomass power plants have been proposed in just the past three years.

It's hard to imagine a more ill-conceived environmental policy. Coal-burning utilities and the biomass industry are promoting policies that will jeopardize millions of acres of forests while virtually guaranteeing that CO2 reduction goals from the power energy sector are not realized.

On June 10, Massachusetts released a potentially game-changing analysis of biomass electricity generation in that state, concluding that burning trees in power plants is worse for climate change than burning coal. Over the next 40 years, the report concluded, burning coal would release less carbon dioxide than cutting forests and burning the trees.

EWG supports strong climate legislation, but the biomass carbon loophole must be fixed immediately. We need climate policies that are not based on fake CO2 reductions.

Biomass fuel would provide the majority of renewable electric power under renewables fuel standards proposed or in place at the state and federal level. Increased logging is the only way to meet the demand for this biomass because the other principal sources usually cited, such as switchgrass, agricultural and construction wastes and logging residues are simply not available in sufficient amounts.

Forests are a major force pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. Cutting them down to burn in power plants will not only inject massive amounts of stored carbon into the atmosphere, it will destroy the best defense against the buildup of atmospheric carbon.