Last summer, the White House acknowledged that biomass-generated energy is not carbon neutral. This recognition, however, didn’t stop Congress from affirming the environmental benefits of using biomass-generated energy. In fact, the congressional action put biomass in the same renewable category as wind and solar.
Though renewable energy has been lauded as clean and the answer to the threat of climate change, not all renewable energy is actually “green.” Biomass has historically been considered a carbon-neutral energy source, meaning carbon emitted and carbon removed from the atmosphere are essentially balanced. It is presumed that the carbon captured in trees is the same as carbon released through combustion. But increasingly, research into these claims has shown otherwise.
Studies from the Massachusetts Environmental Energy Alliance found that biomass combustion (burning) produces 1.5 times more CO2 than fossil fuels on a per unit basis. But biomass energy producers are held to different standards than are fossil fuel producers. The Partnership for Policy Integrity notes that under the Clean Air Act biomass power plants can emit 250 percent the pollution of a coal plant before permits are required, even though these sources emit many of the same toxins.
This reality is compounded because combustion rules are broad and unclear, allowing bioenergy plants to burn anything that is “designed” to burn. They are legally allowed to burn anything from tires and plastic, to construction debris and garbage. Furthermore, biomass generators are not required to use the advanced pollution reduction technologies that have been required of other industries.
But this is only one part of the story, the Maximum Achievable Control Technology (MACT), which creates emission standards for plants, allows a facility that burns at least 10 percent biomass to be considered a biomass plant. This broad rule means that “biomass plants” can be burning 90% coal but with less stringent emissions standards than an actual coal plant. Producers are likely to use this to their advantage, because waste fuels like chemically contaminated wood and garbage, burn at hotter temperatures and produce more energy than trees and other forest greens. This, in addition to biomass plants getting paid to pick up waste, creates a large incentive for biomass plants to burn waste.
“Biomass” is ill-defined and overly broad. Virtually anything can be lumped into that category to be considered green energy, even if tons of air pollutants are produced every year.
The reality is that biomass may be renewable, but it is not environmentally friendly. Congress continuously creates legislation contrary to facts about biomass carbon emissions that are, by now, well-established in the energy industry.
Though the White House rightly rejects carbon neutrality in biomass, Congress appeals to powerful interest groups, ignores pertinent research, and passes laws that go against environmental protection. This is just one case among many where Congress has carved out pollution exemptions for special interest groups under the Clean Air or Water Acts. Methane emissions from livestock aren’t allowed to be tracked, toxic chemicals from fracking are exempted from the Clean Water Act, and biomass plants can emit 2.5 times as much CO2 as other energy sources.
The point of the Clean Air Act is “to protect and enhance the quality of the Nation’s air resources so as to promote the public health and welfare and the productive capacity of its population,” but the influence of special interests turns environmental decisions into political ones to the detriment of the environment.
Kelli Reeder is a communications associate at Strata, a research center in Logan, Utah. Ryan Yonk, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of research at Utah State University.