Today NRDC, Friends of the Earth, The Wilderness Society and a host of other groups listed below are participating in a social media push to draw attention to the risks of biomass energy. We hope this will help our readers get educated about the topic, generate a lot of healthy back and forth, and hopefully inspire people to take action.
Talking about “biomass” doesn’t always hit close to home. Both the science and policy in this debate may seem esoteric and complicated. But to kick off the day, I want to take a step back and make the simple point that if you care about forests, if you care about clean air and water, if you care about saving wildlife or the climate, I hope you’ll tune into this discussion and learn about biomass and the policies that are shaping the bioenergy industry. It matters.
We all know that burning coal for electricity has, literally, deadly consequences. Coal plants fill the air we breathe with soot and smog linked to premature deaths and health problems. Of all fossil fuels, coal also causes the most carbon pollution pound for pound and releases massive amounts of toxic substances such as mercury.
That’s why there has been such a major push to find alternative fuels to burn for power. One of the fuels that energy companies are increasingly looking to is biomass. Biomass is any plant life that was recently alive (as opposed to fossil fuels, which come from plant matter that hasn’t been alive for a very long time). Biomass can be burned or gasified or fermented and turned into heat or electricity or liquid fuels.
Plants use sunlight, water and nutrients in the soil and air to turn carbon from the atmosphere into biomass. That means they’re essentially a special form of solar energy—and like the sun, plants can keep coming back because they can re-grow or be re-planted. This idea that the biomass we harvest and burn for energy will grow back has led many to assume that biomass is automatically a renewable fuel and that its use is environmentally sustainable.
Unfortunately, the reality is that one of the main places energy companies are looking for biomass is in our forests. Our forests are so critical to the air we breathe, the water we drink and to mitigating climate change that burning up wood for power just can’t be considered renewable or sustainable. If we’re going to protect our climate, fresh water supplies and biodiversity for our children and their children, we need intact natural forests more than ever and we should be adding to them not cutting them down.
To be clear, wood is not the only source of biomass used by the bioenergy industry and there are sustainable ways to cultivate and harvest biomass. For example, restoring degraded pasture land to polyculture grasslands and using some of the biomass from these fields could produce soil, water, wildlife and climate benefits. Another example would be using forest residues that would otherwise be burned in the forest releasing the stored carbon anyway.
Unfortunately, these types of sustainable sources of biomass are currently very limited and not the cheapest options in the market. Nor are they prioritized by our bioenergy policies. In fact, a recent proposal by the EPA to give even the most polluting forms of biomass a three year, free pass from carbon pollution rules threatens to push the market further in the wrong direction.
That’s why NRDC and our partners in today’s efforts are drawing attention to the risks of runaway biomass burning. NRDC believes that we can and will eventually need to figure out how to develop truly sustainable bioenergy. But first we need to recognize that today’s policies are taking us in the wrong direction. Burning more of the wrong kinds of biomass means more pollution, more destruction of our forests and a poorer world to leave for our children.
Please check out our campaign website “Our forests aren’t fuel,” my colleague Sasha’s blog on the basics of biomass and today’s action alert, and what our partners are doing. And, most importantly, join the debate.
Here are all the groups that are drawing attention to biomass, our forests and clean air today:
You can also follow most of them them on twitter or find them on Facebook here:
- @NRDC, @NRDCrenewables, @nwgreene
- @FOE_US, @FOE_biofuels
- No Biomass Burning
- Western Massachusetts Biomass Resistance
- Dogwood Alliance
- Biomass Busters Newsletter
- Southern Vermont Against Biomass
- Floridians Against Incinerators in Disguise
- Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives
- Biomass Energy=Earth Liquidation Sale
- NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)
- Friends of the Earth U.S.
- The Wilderness Society
- Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield
- Shelton Blog
- Partnership for Policy Integrity: Get the Facts on Biomass